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Settled

Chapter Text

The land around him was so lush and green. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen so much green in his life. Even what he saw in his travels paled in comparison to the rolling hills and mountains with their thick forests and rich grass.

A cabin sat at the top of the long, winding path. This was not exactly what he’d been imagining when he got it in his head to visit the fellow bounty hunter.

He knocked on the door and stood back. He wasn’t sure of the welcome he might receive.

“What are you doing here, boy?” So far, so good.

“Thought I’d drop by for a visit.”

Beady eyes narrowed further. “Come an awful long way for a visit. Might as well come in.”

Mortimer turned and headed back inside, pipe clasped in one hand, as always.

“Have a seat.”

He sat, still looking around the rather rustic cabin.

“So, did you spend all that money already?” He smiled around his pipe as he poured two glasses of whiskey.

The younger man laughed, “No. Half is yours.”

Mortimer leaned forward seriously. “No, it isn’t. Thought that was obvious when I walked away.”

“We worked together and it’s too much even for me. I’ve got my half and spent a little to get here, but you still have your half and I’m not gonna touch it.”

Mortimer sighed and sat back. “I got what I wanted then, and I doubt you came all this way just to give me $13,500. I’m actually surprised you’d come this far East, and while we’re on that subject, how did you find me?”

“I asked around. Made it clear I wasn’t looking for a fight or anything. I knew you were from the Carolinas, so when I arrived in Charlotte I just started looking around and asking. It was pretty easy after that. Folks are less suspicious of people around here than out West.” He’d also sat back as he explained.

“I guess I’m not surprised. What happened after? It’s been a year after all.”

“Had to take care of a few things after I carted in all the bodies for the bounties. Might have grabbed another bounty or two along the way.”

“That’s making it sound as if you don’t plan to go back West, and I’d find that unusual if that’s the case.”

The younger man laughed and rubbed at his neck. “You know how it is. You collect a lot of bounties and make a lot of enemies along the way. I got a few friends here and there, but I think it’s time I got out while I’m still alive. Though I’m not too sure what to do with myself now.”

“Is that another reason why you’ve come here? I don’t think I’ve got any answers for you.”

“Well, you seem to have retired, and look to be taking it nice and easy. How did you manage that?”

“Money. Even with the war being over, my family still had a lot of money left and I claimed my inheritance when I returned. We also had a large house, but I’d no need for something so big when I’m the only one left. Sold what else I didn’t want, and kept the rest. I got this place cheap thanks to it being a bit out of the way and I can keep to myself without a problem. I stay busy and don’t dwell in the past.”

He stared. Mortimer was oddly nonchalant about selling his family’s home. Mortimer looked far more relaxed than he’d ever seen; not that they’d had much time to be relaxed while chasing down Indio and his gang.

“Since you’re obviously not going to take ‘no’ for an answer, I’ll take the damn money. You still haven’t said what your plans are now that you’ve found me and delivered my half of the bounties.”

“I honestly hadn’t thought that far ahead. Any recommendations, old man?” He grinned.

“I think I have one, boy.” Mortimer grinned back at him around his pipe. “You mentioned ‘our partnership’ before. Seems we both have more money than we know what to do with and we aren’t likely to spend it too fast either. If you don’t mind the close quarters, you’re welcome to stay here a while. It’ll give you a chance to rest up from your journey and I can comfortably say I wouldn’t mind the company at this point.”

“You sure it’s a good idea? We hardly know each other and considering our backgrounds, I’m not sure it’s wise to have two bounty hunters in the same area, never mind the same house, like this even with being retired.”

“Fair point. Perhaps you’re not as reckless as you once were. All said and done, after our temporary partnership a year ago, I find myself trusting you. You said it yourself, we’re retired now. We’re free to do what we like, and you might find that the calmer atmosphere here is something you can adjust to after a time.”

Mortimer relit his pipe and waited for Manco to make a decision.

He looked around the small cabin. In retrospect, it wasn’t all that small. With a hallway stretching out from the shared kitchen and parlor, there seemed to be at least one other bedroom, or at least something that could become a bedroom. There was enough space both inside and out that he and Mortimer could put some distance between them should the cabin become too cramped.

“All right. I’ll give it a try. No promises about staying around for long or anything. I’ll head back West if it doesn’t look to be working out.”

Mortimer stood and held out a hand, “In that case, welcome.” Manco stood and shook his hand.

“Let’s get you settled then.” Manco followed him through the hallway to a door on the left.

“It’s not too much, but it should do all right.” He said, opening the door to reveal a simple and sparsely decorated bedroom. “It’s a guest room, but better than most hotel rooms.”

“Much better.”

“I’m across the hall. The outhouse is out back, and there’s a well also. I’ll leave you to get settled in.”

“It shouldn’t take too long. Other than the money there wasn’t much for me to bring.” He once again looked around the room. He already almost felt at home and he hadn’t been in the cabin for even an hour.

“Oh, one more thing,” Mortimer said from the doorway, “If you’re going to be staying, I probably should get a name. I doubt ‘Manco’ is your real name, after all.”

He snorted. “Hardly. It’s...uh...” It had been a long time since someone wanted to know his name, and since he’d had cause to tell anyone.

“Relax, boy. You can make something up if that’s easier. Or I can.” He laughed.

“Been a long time since someone wanted to know my name.” He paused again and looked around the bedroom. Mortimer had said it was his guest room, but it was still larger than most bedrooms he’d been in, and he wasn’t counting hotel rooms. Not with their cockroaches and rats.

“James.”

“Just ‘James’?”

“James Sharp.”

“Well, now we can be properly introduced. Douglas Mortimer.” The colonel stuck out his hand again, and James shook it once more.

“If I’m being honest, which is probably the best policy for us, I don’t care for my name. If you would, stick to Mortimer or Henry.”

“Henry?”

“My middle name and more preferable than Douglas.”

Chapter Text

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.”

James nodded.

“What about-”

“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.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

They entered the outskirts of Boone just before sunset and Mortimer led them to the inn.

“The stores stay open fairly late in winter, so we should have no trouble getting what we need tonight or early tomorrow morning. We shouldn’t be too late in returning tomorrow; we left a bit later than I’d expected today.” He didn’t bring up the reason behind the delay.

The inn was well lit and a feeling of warmth seemed to emanate from it. The livery was just to the right of the inn and had more than enough stalls available.

“They tack on a small fee to the bill for using the stables, and with so many visitors it adds up and goes back to Jim and Macey for the upkeep of the stables.” Jim and Macey were the older couple who managed the livery and stables.

“Mortimer! Good to see you, my good sir. I was worried you wouldn’t be making it down from your cabin this winter.” Jim greeted them with a wide grin and shook their hands. He couldn’t have been much older than Mortimer, but he showed all the signs of having had a hard life. His hands were well weathered and cracked. His face was tanned dark and bore heavy wrinkles.

“This is James Sharp. I met him out West a while back and he stopped in to visit a while.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Sharp. You need anything at all, just let me or Macey know. Phillip and Ruth over at the inn too. Hell, just let anyone in town know and we’ll be glad to help you. It’s good to see a new face in these parts.” James was taken aback at Jim’s friendliness. He was so used to the townsfolk out West being suspicious of any new face that he’d forgotten that people could be friendly to strangers and not automatically assume the worst in someone.

Macey, a stout lady clearly used to a life working with her hands, came toward them out of a stable and greeted them with the same friendly attitude as her husband.

“It’s a relief knowing Douglas isn’t up in the cabin all by himself in winter like this. I don’t care how capable someone is, it doesn’t do any good being alone all the time.” She hovered over Mortimer and fussed at how thin he was. Mortimer gave the impression of humoring her, but James could tell he was somewhat pleased to be fussed over like that, and he didn’t seem to mind her using ‘Douglas’ instead of ‘Henry’.

“Well, let’s get your lass in a stable with some good hay. She’s a sturdy old girl, isn’t she?” Jim ran an expert eye over Willow. “I’ll check her shoes and give her a look over while y’all are here. I do the same with Reginald.” Not exactly the name James was expecting Mortimer to call his stallion, but eyeing the large, black horse, the name suited him admirably.

“What’s her name? Helps calm them if I can talk to them and use their names.”

“Willow. She’s pretty easy going. She’s never made a fuss about her hooves being seen to or anything like that.”

“Thanks for letting me know. Some people don’t let us know if their horse is a nervous Nellie or prone to kicking out or is just difficult to manage. Good to know your girl is the relaxed sort.” Jim patted her neck gently as he led her to a stall. Macey led Reginald to the one right beside Willow’s.

“We’ll go to the main general store first and get what we need. Mainly blankets, some proper winter clothes and boots for you, and I need a new pair myself. There’s also tools and other supplies.” Mortimer headed across the road to the large, again well lit, store. Despite the time, there were still customers coming and going.

“What’ll it be today, Mr. Mortimer?” A tall, burly man with a thick beard called out from behind the long counter to their right as they entered the store. The store was filled with supplies, from barrels all around the floor filled with everything from sweets to pickaxes to walls lined with yet more tools and a wide assortment of clothes.

“Stocking up on the usual essentials, Mark. This is James Sharp, a friend from out West, and he’ll be staying here a while. He needs some decent clothes for the winter, and we’ll need more blankets and possibly some tools.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Sharp. Mark Bailey at your service. You let me know if you need anything at all. I’ve most of everything y’all might need. If I don’t have it, Matthew over at the other store should. We try to make sure we don’t all carry the same stock, that way we each can get some business; especially with how winters get ’round these parts.” Mark turned his attention back to the inventory list in his hand as James and Mortimer turned theirs to the many barrels.

“Mark has nearly everything we need, but we’ll see Matthew for anything else.”

“Alright. What do we need?”

We need another shovel, more burlap sacks, nails, blankets, and, now that we have even more spending money, anything else that catches our eye. Mark’s sweet collection is unrivaled. You need proper boots, numerous warm socks, decently warm underwear, including long underwear to go under your trousers, gloves, a woolen hat, a scarf, and likely some other garments that I’ll think of. I don’t know how you managed not to freeze to death or lose some fingers or toes out West in winter. Or did you just head South every winter?” Mortimer laughed as he perused an assortment of shovels.

Uncharacteristically, James felt himself flush red. He did in fact, head South every winter. Thanks to his adventures with Tuco and Angel Eyes, he didn’t much like the blistering heat either, but he was at least used to it compared to the cold.

“I’ve never really much cared for the cold. Wasn’t ever really a problem to head where it was warmer for a while.”

“Not to worry, my boy. Even living around here for so long, I can’t say I enjoy the cold months either, but you get used to them. I prefer to use winter as an excuse to catch up on my reading and all the other things I don’t have as much time for the rest of the year. There’s little to do except for staying warm inside and waiting it out anyway.” Having selected his shovel, Mortimer made his way to the blankets layered in a corner of the store. Here he hefted a thick, gray wool blanket before tossing it over to James.

“We need another three just as thick if not more so. If you’d handle that, I’ll get the sacks and nails.” With that Mortimer headed off toward the front of the store and left James to select their blankets. He was surprised at the variety of color and pattern choices, and for whatever reason he decided not to go with three more plain gray blankets and so he found himself holding up various blankets for inspection and feeling rather foolish. They’re just blankets and there he was comparing them like some woman comparing curtains. He had to shake his head at the thought. Putting the thought aside, James selected dark green, rich blue, and dark red blankets to go with the gray one Mortimer had picked out.

In the time it had taken James to gather the blankets, Mortimer had already acquired a number of burlap sacks and was making steady progress through a wide variety of nails. James didn’t understand why Mortimer was being so particular about nails. Nails were nails, right?

Wrong. Mortimer said as such when James asked.

“Not at all. See these long ones here? You want those for nailing together beams and the like. Smaller, thinner ones do nicely for floorboards. The cabin is solid, but it doesn’t hurt to have more nails. I also need to mend the fence in a few spots.”

James took Mortimer at his word, and headed up the stairs where signs lead him to racks and stacks of clothes, boots, coats, and other items. He decided to wait to see what Mortimer would advise for boots and began examining scarves, hats, gloves, and socks. James was carrying two scarves, two pairs of gloves, and five pairs of socks when Mortimer joined him.

“That’s not a bad start.” He held out a basket for James to dump them in. “You need another five or so pairs of socks. I’ll take a look at what he has by way of boots while you get those and a good, warm coat.” Mortimer said over his shoulder as he walked away.

James grabbed more socks and added them to the growing pile in the basket. He then eyed the selection of coats hanging at the other end of the floor. If he was honest, James wasn’t too sure what was most suitable, but he figured he wouldn’t be too far off the mark if he stuck to wool. He wasn’t short on options for warm coats and after some perusal he selected a brown wool one that fell to just past his knees, and it didn’t even need any tailoring for it to fit him properly.

“That’ll do nicely.” James turned as Mortimer walked up beside him carrying two pairs of boots. Thrusting the brown pair at him, Mortimer continued, “See if these fit.” James obediently made for a bench to try on the boots. Bulkier than his current pair, he noted that these were lined with soft fur and the sturdy soles seemed ideal for the rocky terrain and winter weather. The fit was perfect.

“Excellent. That about does it here for us. Matthew across the street will have all the undergarments we need, as well as trousers and shirts.” James took the new pair off and put back on his well worn ones; he noticed that Mortimer’s new boots were identical to his own but in his usual black. Since he’d arrived, James didn’t think he’d seen Mortimer wear anything that wasn’t black and white.

As they made their way back downstairs, James’ eye was finally caught by the many barrels of sweets and candy. The was also a selection of bottled soft drinks; well, Mortimer had said Mark’s selection was unrivaled in the town. Looking over the barrels, James found himself befuddled by all the options; he’d never even seen most of them.

“Too many options?” Mortimer grinned at him across the barrels.

“A bit. I, uh, I don’t have much experience when it comes to sweets.”

Mortimer watched James for a moment, taking in his friend’s apparent embarrassment.

“In that case, we’ll get a little of each and get you acquainted with them all. Mark,” Mortimer called over to the counter, “we want to get some of each sweet, if you will.”

“Of course. About a half pound of each good?” Mark carried out a stack of paper sacks meant for the sweets.

“A pound each of the hoarhound and birch. Two pounds each of the lavender and licorice, and a half pound each of the rest.” Mark went to each barrel weighing out the assorted sweets and, James noted, adding more than Mortimer had asked for.

“Now now, you’re a good friend and customer, Douglas, and I can more than spare a little extra sweets for you both.” Mark would hear none of the older man’s protests, and quickly rang up their purchases. Mortimer in turn refuse to accept any change back from him. They had more than enough and he wanted to do right by Mark and pay the proper price for everything. James found himself smiling as he watched the two men bicker about the money. He could get used to this.

Chapter Text

The two men left Mark’s store laden with their purchases.

“Why don’t we stop by the inn and put these away and then head out again. Even with two of us there’s only so much we can carry.” With that they headed to the inn.

“My goodness! Did you buy Mark out of everything then?” Ruth, as James recalled, exclaimed as they entered.

“Not quite. We’re going to head to Matthew’s before it gets much later.” Mortimer explained as he headed up the stairs.

“Phillip readied your usual room. I hope you won’t mind, but we’re working on fixing up the rest of the rooms while it’s not so busy. I’m afraid you and Mr. Sharp will have to share for the night.” Ruth seemed nervous.

“Not to worry, Ruth. It’s no trouble. I’m sure we’ll manage for the night.

Considering the life he’d led out West, James had become accustomed to bunking down with others, but rarely did sleeping in the presence of others constitute sharing a small hotel bedroom for the night. He put it out of his mind as they reached the second floor and the door to their room.

The room was tastefully, if simply, decorated and held two small beds, matching bedside tables, a tall wardrobe on the wall opposite the beds, and two small chests o’drawers. Each man placed their purchases on their beds and James straightened to look closer at the room.

“There are certainly worse places I can remember staying in,” he remarked as he turned back to Mortimer.

“They don’t see many guests starting around this time of the year. Most everyone nearby will make a trip before winter sets in and the passes become impassable with snow and ice.” Mortimer explained. “Let’s get back out to Matthew’s before it gets much later. Anything else we need after that we can get in the morning before we set out.”

They trooped back downstairs and into the cool evening air. Lamplighters had lit the few gas streetlamps in the tiny town while they had been inside. Although there were not many people out and about, there was still the same welcoming feeling to the place despite darkness settling in. The two men made their way across the street to a small but well-lit store with a few mannequins in the windows displaying well-made trousers, shirts, dresses, and the like. The sign on the door advertised ready-to-wear garments as well as tailor-made ones.

“Welcome! How can I...Mortimer! What a delight to see you, old friend!” James was surprised by the rather cultured sounding English accent which greeted them. Where Mark was tall and burly, Matthew was short and slightly built, and he seemed to radiate an infectious energy.

“It’s been ever so long since you were last in town. Is everything all well at your cabin? I hope the winter won’t be as horrid as it was last year.”

“Everything is doing well, Matthew. We came to stock up on the usual supplies, and James is sorely lacking in suitable clothing.”

“Oh, I’m sorry! Do forgive my rudeness. I’m Matthew Whiteacre. Welcome to Boone!” Matthew enthusiastically shook James’ hand, grinning all the while. James shot a look at Mortimer, who was grinning at James’ shock. Matthew often had that effect on people.
“Now, what can I do for you two? I should have everything you need here, although you might want to see Mark for coats and the like.”

“Thank you. We stopped by Mark’s place first since he has a habit of closing a little earlier than everyone else, these days.”

“Ah, I’m afraid that might be my fault. He somehow took it into his head that I needed more help in the evenings. While I certainly don’t mind the company and a little assistance, the man is rather hopeless when it comes to tailoring. Although, I will admit he’s handier with knitting needles than I’ve ever managed to be.”

Mortimer nodded in agreement. “I had noticed he has a larger stock of hats and scarves than he used to. Well, James needs proper winter undergarments, thicker trousers, and shirts.”

James felt he should speak up before the two men decided to do his shopping for him. He was well old enough to select and buy his own clothing.

“If you’ll just point me in the right direction, I’ll find what I need and let you get back to what you were doing.” He glanced at the table Matthew had clearly been working at before they’d entered.

“Oh, it no trouble at all. As I’m obviously not from around here myself, it’s easy for me to see you’re also new to the area. If you don’t mind some advice from Mortimer and I, we’ll be glad to help you pick what’s more suitable. It wouldn’t do to leave with items not meant for our winters.” With that, Matthew took James by an elbow and led him over to where the trousers and shirts were; Mortimer followed with amusement still plain on his face.

James felt less like a person and more like a glorified coat rack as Matthew began pulling trousers and shirts off the racks, muttering to himself all the while.

“Yes, yes, this’ll do nicely. Hmm...just the right color. Your complexion is best suited to lovely warm colors. Mortimer does better with cooler ones. Yes, this brown is perfect. Oh, here, these are the warmest undergarments I make. Just wonderful for the long, cold winter. They’ll hold up nicely too. I think a few warmer undershirts to go with the pants and regular shirts.” The clothes were piled higher and higher in James’ arms. He chanced a glance at Mortimer, who was still a mostly silent observer throughout all of Matthew’s frenzied rushing to and fro in the little shop, and saw he was watching it all with a strange sort of fondness.

“Well, I think that’s you all set. I really have probably picked out too much, but I don’t often get new customers and it’s been rather too quiet lately.”

“Shouldn’t I try these on?” James raised his arms a bit, indicating everything he was holding.

“I wouldn’t worry about it, James. Matthew has a gift for being able to size someone at a glace. I think you only measure someone if you’re making something custom, right?”

Matthew flushed a bit and nodded. “I haven’t needed to measure someone or have them try on ready-made clothes in years now. Now, making a tailored suit is a different matter all together. It just doesn’t do to make one without the proper measurements.”

James turned to Mortimer and peered at him over the mound of clothes. “Are you sure I need all this? It’s a lot of trousers, shirts, and such for one man.”

“Better to have too much than too little. It also takes longer for cloth to dry in the winter, so it’s better to have more to wear as the rest dries.”

James took him at his word and carried everything to the counter. Matthew rang everything up and had it all wrapped and ready in no time; chattering away all the while.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, James, and it was wonderful to see you again, Mortimer. I wish you a safe and warm winter since I doubt we’ll see you until the spring.” Matthew waved at them cheerily as they left and made their way back to the inn.

As they put away their purchases, Mortimer having bought a few trousers, shirts, and winter undergarments as well, in the inn, James turned to him.

“Is he always that...friendly?”

“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him calm unless he’s measuring and sewing. I suppose I should have warned you about him. He’ll be a bit embarrassed by now; he never realizes it until later how overwhelming he might have been. Mark is just about the only one who can be around him for more than an hour. Matthew is usually calmer if Mark is around. They’ve been close friends since Matthew first moved to the area some years ago.” Mortimer left it at that as he finished putting everything in their travel packs.

James let his hands do the work as his mind drifted and he mused over Mortimer’s explanation. It sounded to him like Mark and Matthew were somewhat more than “close friends”, but it wasn’t his business to pry into personal affairs so long as no one was being hurt. It seemed to him that the world could do with more friendship and love, so who was he to voice his suspicions.

“We have a little more time before Ruth and Phillip will serve dinner, so we might as well take a walk around the town. Unless you’d prefer to stay in for now.” Mortimer had pulled out his watch as he spoke.

“Well, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of the place before we set out in the morning.” James straightened and headed toward the door, grabbing his coat as he went. With that, the two headed back out into the night.

Chapter Text

There were even fewer people out and the darkness was all consuming but for the gaslights and the cheerily lit stores. As it was nearly eight o’clock, it was well after dark and the temperature had plummeted. James almost wished he’d chosen his new wool coat to wear, but he wasn’t overly bothered by the cold just yet. Mortimer strolled beside him at a casual pace and seemed content to wander through the town without any set goal.

“Was that all we needed to get for the winter?” After ten minutes of near silence, James had the urge to speak and break it. He was also hoping Mortimer had some sort of goal in mind. It wasn’t that he wasn’t curious about the little mountain town, but it was getting cold and he found himself wishing he were back indoors somewhere.

“That should be everything we need, but I’ll check everything to make sure before we leave. I have stores of seeds and the like for planting in the spring, and I have all the tools we’ll need. The horses are set with feed and hay, so unless something springs to mind we have all that we need to make it through the winter.

James nodded as he tucked his hands into his coat pockets and hunched his shoulders slightly. He didn’t notice the concerned glance Mortimer gave him before the older man turned his attention back to the quaint town. That’s when it caught his eye.

*

James glanced around the little shop. Mortimer had practically dragged him into it when he saw it was lit; he was almost beside himself with glee.

“She’s hardly ever open in winter, especially now she’s older. She has the best selection of coffee beans, tea leaves, and other things Mark doesn’t always have. It’s well worth the price.”

Indeed, there was a multitude of canisters playing host to varieties of coffee beans, and there were stacks of tins of all kinds of tea leaves. The center tables held a variety of baked goods and stacks of strange crystals in a variety of colors James had never seen before.

“Henry! I didn’t think I’d see you till the spring. Leaving it a bit late this year, don’t you think?”

James turned as the tiniest old woman he’d ever seen stepped out of the back room. Her kindly face was heavily wrinkled, but her eyes sparkled with the same energy of a young child.

“It’s not quite time for the first snowfall, Martha,” Mortimer laughed as he hugged the little lady, “and James here needed to get settled in.”

“Ma’am.” James tipped his hat, suddenly feeling rather shy. He hadn’t missed how she used Mortimer’s middle, and preferred, name, and he felt he was intruding on them.

“None of that now. Any family of Mortimer’s is family of mine. I practically raised the boy with how often he and his sister would sneak over for treats and for quiet.” Now it was Mortimer’s turn to flush red.

Family. Why family and not friend? James had the distinct impression Martha could see right through them. She seemed to know something about them both that neither had yet come to realize. He turned his attention back to their conversation.

“-doing well then? How is the house?” Mortimer had bent a little as he spoke with her.

“Oh, everything is just fine, dear. Mark, Matthew, and Jim have all seen to my little place, and it’s as sound as ever. And as for me, well, I might be a little old lady, but I can handle myself just fine, don’t you fret. How about you? You do live so far into the mountains and from everyone. I do worry about you so in the winter, but I’m happy you have someone now. Does you good not to be so alone, ‘specially considering everything.” It was as plain as anything that the kindly woman absolutely doted on Mortimer, but her words were strange to James. Why “have someone” and not “have a friend” or something similar? He abruptly froze as it dawned on him. She thought he and Mortimer were like Mark and Matthew, but as he went to correct her he caught the expression on Mortimer’s face as he very slightly shook his head once.

James closed his mouth as they continued to talk, and he came to the conclusion that Mortimer didn’t seem overly bothered by Martha’s assumption and that it would be better to let her keep her assumption. He decided to keep his silence until they were alone and could discuss the matter properly.

“Now James, Henry tells me you’ve always lived out West, is that right?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ve lived out there my whole life. That’s not to say I haven’t traveled, but never this far East.”

“I’m happy you decided to make the journey our way, and I hope you’ll like it here. Our little town is nothing like what you saw out West, I’m sure, but maybe you won’t be too awfully bored when you visit. I hope Henry will keep you occupied as well.”

“After all I’ve seen, I could use some peace and quiet, ma’am.” The conversation among the three of them continued along that path for some time.

“My goodness, look at the time! We’ll be up all night. Here’s some of your usual tea and coffee, Henry. Has anything caught your eye, James?” Martha had changed the conversation when she realized they’d been speaking for nearly an hour without a thought for the time.

“I was wondering what those crystals on the table were?” James pointed to the small table in the center of the room which held all those colored crystals.

“You mean to tell me you haven’t had rock candy before? Some call it sugar candy as well. Lovely stuff; does a person right when you mix it with some warm whiskey. Knocks the cold right out of you. I’ve got all kinds of flavors. You won’t believe what you can find these days. I prefer the old pure white or brown sugar type myself.” As she spoke she put some of each flavor in small paper sacks.

In the meantime, Mortimer had selected some more tea and coffee varieties on top of what Martha had given him. Between the two of them, they had quite the haul of teas, coffee, candy, and baked goods. As with Mark, Martha had given them some extra treats, but flat out refused any of the money Mortimer tried to give her.

“I won’t hear of it. I practically raised you and what family chargers their own for something! And don’t you even try to slip it on the counter or a table when you leave. You just remember to visit me more often come spring and that’ll be that. Now you two get on back to the end before you catch your death of cold out there. Y’all aren’t dressed nearly warm enough. Honestly, Henry, you should know better.” With that, she quickly, but politely, hurried them out the door with a final goodbye and orders to warm up after being out in the cold night air.

Once again James found himself looking at Mortimer with what must have been a familiar look of astonishment.

“She did practically raise me and Rosemary since we often ran to stay with her when he would start getting out of hand and I didn’t want her around him. She doesn’t care one whit about my age and treats me just as she did back then.” There was no need to explain who “he” was.

“I noticed she’s the only one I’ve heard call you ‘Henry’ rather than ‘Douglas’ or ‘Mortimer’.”

“She was the first to notice that I didn’t much like my given name as I apparently started to, as she phrased it, make some sort of “face” every time I was called ‘Douglas’ or, worse, ‘Doug’. She took to calling me by my middle name and that was that. Rosemary picked it up soon after, but it never spread beyond those two until now.”

“You could let them know what you’d rather be called, or is that not done around here. These people know you well.” Considering he hadn’t gone by his own name for almost his whole life, James didn’t see what all the fuss was about with a name.

“I could, but it doesn’t bother me enough to cause trouble about it, and-” He stopped speaking and flushed a bit.

“What?”

“Never mind,” Mortimer said gruffly, picking up the pace and walking ahead of James. James shrugged and hurried after him.

“That has us set for the winter. She even gave us more flour and sugar. I’ll give the money to Mark or Jim in the morning before we leave and they’ll see she gets it or that it gets used for her. She rarely accepts any money from me for anything these days.” James let the matter of Mortimer’s name drop for the time being since he clearly didn’t want to discuss it anymore.

“Oh, there you are! We were getting worried you’d gotten lost or attacked. Go and put those away and come have some dinner before it gets cold.” Ruth welcomed them back to the inn and quickly closed the doors after them. James had the distinct impression all the women of the town treated Mortimer like their own child, or were of a general fussy sort with good intentions. He found he didn’t mind as much as he thought he ought. No doubt it came from not having much of a mother himself. Not that he’d have let on that it bothered him if it did.

The two men dutifully put their haul from Martha in their room and went back down for dinner.

“Now, are you two sure you have to leave in the morning? We would love it if you stayed around another day or two. You should really get a proper tour of the town too, James.”

“Thank you, Ruth, but it’s probably best we leave in the morning. It won’t be long before the first snowfall and I need to make sure the cabin and barn are all set for the winter.”

“You always say that, Douglas, but you’re right. It wouldn’t do to get caught without being prepared. Y’all can stay longer in the spring and summer.” The rest of their meal continued with amicable discussions about crops, two projects to expand the town, and the mines in the western part of the state.

“I reckon we’d better turn in before it gets much later. Thank you for the wonderful meal, Ruth and Phillip, and for putting us up for the night.”

“It’s an inn. Surely you wouldn’t expect anything else.” Phillip laughed.

With that, the proprietors and their guests bid one another goodnight and the former began to gather the dishes and plates as the latter made their way up the stairs.

James was warm and content as he readied for sleep, letting the quiet peace wash over him. Mortimer, too, seemed at ease.

“I’d forgot towns could be this peaceful.”

“Boone is a young town yet. I’m sure it’ll see its share of trouble at some point; especially with all the mines springing up. I can only hope I won’t be around to see it happen.”

“Can’t argue with that, old man. Goodnight.”

“See you in the morning, my boy.”

And with that, the two men turned in for the night. The younger musing on Martha’s words about family and wondering if it might apply to him and Mortimer in some way at some point. He had the rest of his life here to settle in and see if it might just happen. The older thinking that it wasn’t bad to maybe be part of a family again, if only he could be sure that James wouldn’t eventually head back West. Whether it was the coming spring or some years down the road, no matter what he said about wanting quiet after the chaos of the West, Henry felt sure that James would one day head back that way. And James was dead certain he’d live out the rest of his days in this little town and in Mortimer’s cozy cabin.