Late afternoon sunlight filtered through the curtains into the cozy cabin. James had been there a week and he was already used to the quiet. It wasn’t as though there wasn’t anything to do, between the stables, gardens, maintenance on the cabin, and so forth, but it was far quieter than even the quietest day out West. He and Mortimer had quickly settled into an easy comfort with each other.
They would spend the cooler mornings and evenings tending to the vegetable and flower gardens, and the afternoons were ideal for working in the stables or relaxing on the porch. The cabin and stables were in excellent shape and there wasn’t much to do to maintain them. This left plenty of time for conversations. James thought back to one about the weather the day he’d arrived.
“I should warn you that the weather here is nothing like it is out West.” Mortimer spoke from over by the black cast iron woodstove where he had a simple stew simmering.
“The trees and the mountains and all the greenery did give that away.”
“You can thank all the rain and high humidity for that. The heat itself isn’t nearly what it is out in the desert, but the humidity makes it worse. Some days it’s difficult to breathe. Storms tend to build out of nowhere. Sometimes it’ll break the humidity, but others it just makes it all the more worse; especially if the sun comes back. The winters aren’t quite what you see sometimes out West, but the snow will be heavy enough to shut us inside for days. It’s a damp cold that settles right into your bones. This area of the Carolinas can see some nasty storms as well.”
“I take it I’m under-dressed for the weather.” James glanced down at his pants, shirt, and vest. The poncho hung on a hook by the door.
“Not yet, but you will be. We’ll need to make a trip into town to see about getting you some proper winter clothes.”
That was a week ago and already the temperatures were dropping lower each night. The days were still nice and warm, and years living out West meant James wasn’t taken aback by the sharp drop of temperatures. The sturdy cabin certainly kept the colder air and wind out, but Mortimer was right about the chill settling into his bones. The vest and poncho weren’t quite warm enough at night now; not that either man had any place to be after dark. Sometimes each man would read quietly, and other nights found them talking late into the night. Sharing stories of the bounties they’d grabbed and the ones they’d missed out on. Despite their seemingly easy camaraderie, their conversations didn’t stray very far into personal territory. Mortimer hadn’t discussed his family beyond detailing selling the family home and land when he’d returned from out West. James wasn’t comfortable asking just yet, and Mortimer also hadn’t asked James anything regarding his own past or family.
Little did he know he’d get his opportunity to ask about Mortimer’s family only a few days later.
James glanced to his right at Mortimer; he didn’t relish the response he was sure to get, but he had to know. He couldn’t put it off any longer. He’d need to get out of the mountains before winter if Mortimer decided he couldn’t have James around anymore. James shifted and cleared his throat.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something. I know you, uh, had a sister, but what about the rest of your family?” The late afternoon light filtered through the trees to the front porch.
Mortimer glanced over. “You’ve been here nearly two weeks and you’re only now asking about my family? Why the sudden curiosity?”
James turned to face Mortimer directly. “I had a run-in; well, several run-ins with a man who looked rather a lot like you. Same eyes and all too. Just wanted to know if it was more than coincidence. I didn’t bring it up sooner since I didn’t figure you’d want me prying into your life.”
“Point made. My mother died shortly after my sister was born; she’d never regained her strength after it. My father was killed in a duel not long after, so the three of us went our separate ways when we were old enough. We left the family home and land in the care of relatives and family friends.” Mortimer stretched out his legs and settled down in his chair.
“My sister, Rosemary, met a young man also making his way out West. I’d been traveling with her after the war until she’d found a place she liked. She made it clear that she was going to marry him regardless of my approval, but they asked for it anyway.” Mortimer chuckled. “She was always headstrong that way. Stubborn, determined, and strong. I think George needed her protection more than she his. Once I saw them settled, I continued on my own until word of their murders reached me. You know the rest of that.”
“The third? My twin brother. We might have looked the same, but we couldn’t be more different. I was the only one he would listen to, not that he listened particularly well. He quickly went his own way and decided villainy suited him more than honor. I did my fighting for the Confederacy, loathe as I was to do it, but fighting face-to-face always suited me more than his backstabbing methods. He used the war to his advantage and did whatever he could to hold power over others and to make easy money. Toward the end of the war I lost track of him.” Mortimer sighed and took a swallow of whiskey. “I can’t say I tried too hard to look for him. After the war I found that although killing was easier, I’d rather turn it to help. Money was always an extra bonus.”
“Your brother...did he go by the name ‘Angel Eyes’?”
Mortimer didn’t look at James. “Yes. He was always good at manipulating people. He’d give the impression of being kind and capable of caring before revealing his cruelty. Rosemary was always a bit scared of him. Though identical, our personalities were so different no one had difficulty telling us apart, even strangers.”
James cleared his throat. “I don’t know if you want to know what happened to him, but I could tell you.”
Now Mortimer turned, “Judging by that and your expression, I’m gonna guess you had something to do with it.”
“...yeah,” and James began relating the events concerning himself, Tuco, Angel Eyes, Jackson, and the unnamed grave filled with gold. Mortimer listened carefully without interrupting, eyes narrowed even further as he looked out over the mountains. The silence stretched out around them as James finished; birds and the buzz of the last of the cicadas filled the silence soon enough.
“He never did learn, the bastard.” Mortimer rested his head in his hands, suddenly seeming older than before.
“I’ll take my leave in the morning.” James made to stand.
“No!” Mortimer reached out a hand to stay him. “No. I knew before he was dead. I’d made my peace with it and knowing the circumstances doesn’t change that. Hell, I don’t even miss him much; not like Rosemary. Considering all the shit he pulled even before we went our separate ways, I’m not a bit surprised by how he went out. Life is strange, though.” A sad smile graced his face. “Strange how we met up after everything that happened. Speaking of that, how is it that you don’t have all that gold?”
“Ah, well, I screwed up,” James said ruefully as he rubbed the back of his neck. “Everything was going great and I was making my way back to more familiar territory, but traveling with that much money was stupid. Beyond stupid, really. I should have buried most of it, but I was exhausted and overconfident. And six against one are shit odds when you haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in a few days.”
“Let me guess, they got you either while you slept or when you let your guard down, knocked you out, tied you up, and made off with the gold? That about right?” Mortimer laughed.
“Take out the tying me up part and that sums it up nicely. Hell of a headache when I came to. At least they were so focused on the gold they left my horse and supplies. I made my way back to familiar ground and got caught up in yet some more trouble with two families having it out in a town. I came off alright there in the end, but that doesn’t make up for my stupidity. All that trouble to find some gold in an unnamed grave for jackshit.”
Mortimer watched as James took another swallow of whiskey. “I don’t know. Seems it led us to this point and I can’t say I’m ungrateful for it.”
They settled into an easy silence, staring off into the mountains.