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Settled

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Life had settled into what could almost be called a routine, and it hadn’t varied much from when James had settled in. Tending to the flower garden had turned into preparing it for winter; covering the sensitive plants with straw or sheets, uprooting those that were already dead and wouldn’t come back come spring. In the vegetable garden, cabbage, collards, mustard greens, beets, and other fall and winter vegetables needed regular tending before they were ready to harvest. Some vegetables and fruit plants were covered in straw and sheets to shield them from the cold. The rest of the garden would be left as it was until it was time for tilling in the spring. The apple trees were heavy with fruit and it’d taken two days of steady work to clean both trees of the apples and store them in the cellar. The stables and cabin needed little more maintenance to prepare for winter, so Mortimer shifted their focus to supplies.

“The roads and paths to any of the closest towns are barely passable in winter and I prefer not to have to venture out unless I have no choice. I normally make two trips to Boone, but with you here I think we can manage everything in just one.”

“One trip to town to last us the whole winter?”

“We have little need for more food thanks to the garden and the deer. Some spices and seasonings, sugar, salt, flour, and a few other things and that’s food taken care of. The most important things are clothes, boots, and blankets. The horses are already set for food and hay thanks to what I gathered in the summer and early fall.”

Mortimer and James spoke back and forth as they saddled their horses and prepared for the long trek south to Boone. With a full day needed to get to and from Boone, they’d need an early start if they wanted to arrive before nightfall.

“There’s a small inn we can stay in since we’re hardly the only ones who prefer to live further out in the wilderness. The general stores are well stocked with supplies and longer lasting provisions. Speaking of, I think we can pick up a few extra things thanks to all that money. No sense in having it if we’re not going to spend some of it. Better now to stock up on as much as possible.”

“Is it really that impossible to travel in winter here, old man?” James had always managed to travel well enough out West even in the worst of the winters.

Mortimer glanced at James as he tightened the saddle straps and adjusted the bridle. “My boy, I think you’re still mistaking this for the West. They might see worse storms out there, but don’t underestimate the winters here. Snow can fall densely and rapidly and you’d be in trouble before you knew it. We’ll have ice storms bad enough to block the roads and the railway tracks, and take out the telegraph lines for weeks. Some of the older folk have a nose for scenting out the worst storms, but I never got the hang of it, and I’m not going to risk a day’s travel deep in winter unless I have absolutely no choice.”

Feeling chastened, James busied himself with Willow’s saddle and bridle, and mumbled, “Sorry.”

Mortimer sighed, “Don’t worry about it. I lived long enough out West that I had trouble adjusting back to this climate, and for someone who has never lived here, I can’t expect you to know it already.” He paused before slowly continuing, “Have you lived anywhere outside the West?”

James straightened and grabbed for his hat on the saddlehorn, “Oh. Ah...I’ve traveled as far as western Kentucky and parts of Tennessee, but I didn’t linger. I grew up in the middle of the Indian and Oklahoma Territories, but I didn’t stay there long before I headed out. At the time I remember thinking that anything was better than rotting in that tiny town for the rest of my life.”

Mortimer laughed, “And now?”

“I think I still feel the same. Hell, old man, I’d be surprised if that place was still standing. What hadn’t burned or collapsed by the time I’d left was filled with people only looking for the next place to spend what little they had on drink and women. None of the lawmen gave a damn about what happened to any of the few good folk left. I saw my chance to get out of there and I took it. Considering the sort I think we’ve come across in our lives, I think you understand about taking the law into your own hands and doing for yourself and your own.” James turned his back and reached for the saddlebags they’d need. He hadn’t meant to suddenly unburden his feelings about his hometown on Mortimer like that.

Neither retired bounty hunter said a word as they finished preparing their horses for the hard trek to town. Mortimer finished securing the cabin as James mounted Willow and tugged at the reins to shift her away a bit from Mortimer’s black stallion. The awkward atmosphere persisted until the two guided their horses onto the path away from the cabin.

“Look, I-”

“I didn’t mean-”

Mortimer looked away and James cleared his throat. “You first.”

“I didn’t mean to bring up a sore past and I probably shouldn’t be so critical when you ask about the weather or travel in the area. While I could use my age and argue that I’m a crotchety old man, the truth is simpler. I’m not used to having someone around all the time and I make assumptions about what you know and have experienced.” Mortimer gave a slight sigh. “I’m sorry for bringing up something you’d rather not discuss.”

James twisted slightly in the saddle to look at Mortimer, who seemed suddenly wearied. “I haven’t thought about that place in a long time. I thought it was behind me and that I’d moved on from it. I guess matters long past do linger more than you’d think. I, uh, also haven’t really told anyone about my childhood. Out there those stories are more common than cockroaches in a hotel and no one wants to hear another story of some kid running away from home because of lawlessness or hunger or whatever other bullshit reason.” James pulled a quirley from under his poncho and lit it, shaking out the match and flicking it away.

“We said honesty was the best policy between us. I’d like to add to it and say that if one of us makes it clear we don’t want to discuss something then we should leave it alone.”

“My boy, that’s something we probably should have agreed on from the start. Too late for that now, but let’s have a fresh start when it comes to sensitive topics.”

“Wise plan, old man.”

There were benefits to being older and having a somewhat shared past as bounty hunters; knowing the value of honesty with the understanding that there’s a such thing as being too honest was one of them. James knew that one of them would inevitably dig up something the other would rather left buried, but he also knew that he’d forgive Mortimer anything at this point. He had a thought that it was the same for Mortimer; although he couldn’t imagine something worse that bringing up the topic of his sister and twin brother again.

The matter settled, the two shifted once more into their easy companionship and conversation. The trails were, for the most part, wide enough that they could ride side-by-side and continue their conversations. Mortimer took great pleasure in pointing out the local flora, including a wide variety of uses for all the plants and trees.

“Those are wild blackberries there. It’s too late for the berries now, but they’re delightful. I still have some preserves from last season’s and it’s better than even butter on biscuits.” James followed Mortimer’s hand where he pointed out a thick blackberry bramble. Mortimer explained that a bramble was the local term for a thicket; James admitted that he liked the alliteration.

“I did more than just hunt down bounties out there,” he replied at Mortimer’s expression of surprise. Mortimer’s laughter echoed in the trees.

“I really should stop making any assumptions about you. Oh!” Mortimer again pointed out another plant. “Stay the hell away from that if you know what’s good for you.”

“From what?” James had no idea what to look at with all the green around him despite the red, gold, and brown from the fallen leaves.

“At a glance it looks almost like those blackberries, but stay away from poison ivy if you want to avoid an unpleasant experience. Some people are more sensitive to it than others, but I think you’d like to avoid the risk of getting the rash that sometimes happens. The forest is thick with damned plant and it serves no real good use except for the animals to eat.”

“I’ll take your word on that. What about that one?” James was pointing to a decently sized shrub with long stems and a few remaining leaves to the left of the path.

“Hmm...ah, mountain sweet or red root. Really useful, that one. The leaves make a nice tea and the roots are handy for dyeing fabrics. That’s an old plant the natives first pointed out to the colonists. Nearly all the local plant and animal knowledge we have comes from them. Damned unsightly the way they’ve been treated by us.” Mortimer glanced at James. “Sorry, but judging someone simply because they look different from you or have different cultures is no excuse for treating them worse than cattle. I only fought for the Confederacy because it was expected and I knew what could happen to those around me if I didn’t fight.”

“You gained quite a reputation as the ‘best shot in the Carolinas’, Colonel.” James pointed out.

“Word gets around. I was a good soldier because I fought like hell when outnumbered and had a reputation for getting out of impossible situations. The best shot bit came later. War is hell, as many have said. I did my bit of it, but fighting your own countrymen just to keep slaves all under the guise of not liking the federal government telling you what to do has to be the stupidest reason to go to war.” Mortimer had flushed red and he gripped the bridle so hard his knuckles were white and his nails dug into his palms.

“Hey, it’s fine. I’ve only gotten caught up in it because of my own dumb decisions and greed. Certainly nothing close to any sort of honor there. I’ve had too many times where I got involved when I shouldn’t have or where I should have spoke up but didn’t. Seeing how people have treated one another in all those situations has lead me to see very little good in most people. Some exceptions here and there, but it seems a rarity these days. You won’t find me disagreeing with you about any of that.” James wanted it absolutely crystal clear that he had no quarrel with Mortimer on matters of war and treating people with dignity and respect. As he’d said, there seemed to be less and less of that in the world as of late, or maybe his years out West had made him cynical.

The quiet continued, disturbed only the breeze ruffling the leaves and the sounds of birds and animals in the trees. The rest of their journey to Boone was fairly unremarkable. Mortimer had started pointing out various trees and plants again, some of which James recognized from their garden or from before. Mortimer also took care to show the tracks and trails of deer and turkeys, even a bear on occasion.

If either man noticed the other’s gaze lingering longer than usual, neither said a word.