Western Short Story
The locomotive chugged its way up the long gradual slope, spewing dark smoke and slowing from its normal speed to almost a crawl. You could almost walk as fast at that moment, Matt Riley thought, again wondering what kind of a fool's errand his boss Ben Alembert had sent him on this time. It seemed Alembert always had something of this sort for him to do and it usually meant trouble. He had the scars to prove it. This time the assigned task was finding a reclusive mountain man in the high Copper Mountains, a man who may or may not want to be found. Still, Alembert had given Riley an envelope to deliver and deliver it he would, if he could. Inquiries at Fort Simpson suggested the man lived somewhere above Albertville and the only way there was to take the railroad to the top of the mountain and hike up the mountain in hopes of finding him.
The railroad did not have an established stop at this stage in the trip over the mountains and the engineer was clear the train could not and would not stop on the incline. But a miner had told Matt Riley, in exchange for a beer, that the train, at the apex of the climb, would be moving very slowly and Riley could simply just step off the rear car if he wished.
He sensed the slowing of the train and rose from his seat, touching his hat to the young couple sitting diagonally opposite. They watched him as he turned and walked to the end of the car. He went out the door, stepped over the empty space between cars to the cargo car and opened the locked door with a set of picks he habitually carried. They would be wondering about him when he did not return, he thought. He found his large packsack and rifle where he had left them and went to the back door. This part might be tricky, stepping off the train without being seen, though even if he was seen it was unlikely anything could be done about it. He would be gone and they could not stop.
The train slowed even more as it neared the crest and, shouldering the pack Matt Riley went down the three stairs and hopped off smoothly onto the space between the rails. He did not know if the men in the caboose saw him but no one called out, so he assumed no one had.
He watched the train slowly and noisily reach the apex of the climb and then disappear over the top and begin to gain speed. It would work its way down the slope toward a tunnel in the mountain that would lead it back down to the valley floor. Without a second glance, he turned away from the tracks, looked up at the top of the bluff and began to climb. The slope was not too demanding and the going not too bad. He wore good hiking boots rather than cowboy boots, city shoes or moccasins. He walked for a little more than an hour, enjoying the cool fresh air that drifted down from higher up and then, as darkness began to fall, he looked for a spot to camp. No one tried hiking in the mountains in the dark.
He found a spot under a rocky overhang and put down the large pack, setting it in the shade. He took out simple cooking utensils made for hiking in the hills and made himself a sandwich, a mug of hot soup and even hotter tea. He cleaned everything in a small pool of water and then settled down against a slope of sand, tipped his hat over his eyes and fell asleep.
He rose with the sun, repeated the meal of the night before, cleaned the site and shouldered the pack. He walked with his rifle in one hand, pointed down and no shell in the chamber as was the safe method for hiking. He had a small caliber pistol in a shoulder holster, but in the wild it was a rifle that people depended upon. He climbed for another two hours until he took another break and sat on a high boulder studying the area with his binoculars looking for any sign of life. He looked for a dwelling, domestic animals or chimney smoke. He also listened for sounds that might indicate the presence of others in the area. There was nothing.
He consulted a map drawn by one man and vouched for by two others in the small town at the foot of the mountains. He should be within a half day of the location indicated, though distances were imprecise in this kind of travel. Still, he consulted his compass, aligned himself with a distant pine sitting precariously on the edge of a rock outcropping and continued to walk.
He stopped for lunch beside a rapidly flowing, icy-cold creek, enjoying the cold refreshing water and making himself another sandwich with bread, smoked meat and tomato. From then on it would be canned goods and what he could find or kill. Nothing new in that for Matt Riley.
He reread the note from Ben Alembert, one of the most prominent lawyers in Memphis. 'I need you to find Daniel Atherton, known locally, I am told as Mountain Bill. He resides in the high Copper Mountains in New Mexico and you may begin in the town of Albertville at the base of the mountains. Please deliver the enclosed envelope to Mr. Atherton and wait while he reads the contents, or read them to him if required. In that case only you are permitted to know the contents of the envelope, and only in that case or if Mr. Atherton so informs you. It may be that he will decide to return with you to Albertville. If so, I charge you with his safe passage to that town and, if necessary, during the balance of his journey to a destination he will reveal should he choose to go there. I apologize for the secrecy, Matt, but such is the wish of the person who has commissioned this task. She is both a valued client and dear friend.'
Ben Alembert had many acquaintances, Matt Riley knew, but few friends and so this must be an unusual situation indeed.
He continued up the mountain for the balance of the afternoon and found another comfortable spot to set up his night camp. He had killed a sage hen with an expert throw of the long knife he carried at his waist and he roasted it along with some wild onions he had found and the few potatoes he carried along. He enjoyed such meals as much as he might a fine meal in a Memphis restaurant.
The next morning dawned dull and cool, though the clouds suggested cloudiness more than rain. Or so he hoped. He fixed breakfast and, once again shouldering the pack and carrying the rifle, he walked on. He was near the summit of the tallest mesa and the ground was beginning to level out. He enjoyed walking and his regular visits to the gymnasium kept him fit.
He could see further and was enjoying the view when he suddenly stopped. He was being watched. He felt it rather than knew it, but those perceptions were rarely wrong. He took another step forward and to the right, putting himself in the shadow of a rocky overhang and then stopped again to listen and study the terrain. He could see nothing, but something or someone was out there.
What the hell, he thought. He put down his pack and stepped out into the open and looked up at the rocks above him.
"I'm looking for Mountain Bill!" he called. "If you're out there, call out or show yourself. I've brought something to give you!"
That said, Matt Riley sat on a rock and waited.
He did not have to wait long.
"Put down that there rifle you're carrying and I'll come on down," came a voice from above and to his left.
"Nothing doing," Riley said. "But it's pointed down and if you're Mountain Bill you've nothing to fear from me."
A minute passed. Then, "Alright, I'm coming down, but I'm carrying too."
"Fine, just keep it down."
And then there he was. He was a large man, both tall and wide, with a full beard and moustache, shoulder length hair and bushy eyebrows. He wore clothing made from animal skins, but pretty well fashioned, Riley thought. And there was obvious intelligence in those bright blue eyes.
"Says you got something for me? What is it?"
in my pack," Riley said, putting down the rifle. He reached into
the pack and pulled out the thick envelope, holding it out to the
Mountain Bill put down his Sharps long rifle and took the envelope.
"You know what's in it?"
Riley shook his head. "I was commissioned to bring it, not read it."
"Commissioned, huh," the man said. "Now there's a word you don't hear too often up here in the mountains. Commissioned. I like the sound of that."
He sat on a rock, peeled back the seal on the envelope and pulled out the sheaf of papers, going through them one by one. As he did, Matt Riley saw his expression go from curious to surprised, to shocked and astounded, then to thoughtful and even wistful. The range of emotions flowed as he read.
It took almost a half-hour before he worked his way through everything. He carefully shuffled the papers together, put them back into the envelope and then set it aside and studied Matt Riley for a moment.
"More to you than meets the eye, I'm thinking, mister. Name?"
"Well, Matt Riley, who sent you up here with this envelope?"
"I work for a Memphis lawyer named Ben Alembert. I do the kinds of things that involve travelling, and finding people. He sent it on behalf of a client."
"Know the client?"
Riley shook his head. "Alembert never told me and he said I was not to look inside at the contents of the envelope unless you permitted it or circumstances required me to. Up to now, they have not."
"Well, I may need you to do that. What do you know about me?"
"Nothing more than they told me down in Albertville and I imagine you know what they would say as much as if I told you."
Daniel Atherton, Mountain Bill, nodded. "I've been up here so long that I've almost forgotten life before I came to the mountains."
"Almost fifteen years."
"Many things bring men from the towns to the mountains. Some drawn to them, some running away from something and some finding seclusion in them. What about you?"
"A little of each, I'd say. I was raised in relative wealth, Riley, and followed along with the established family plan until I was almost twenty-six years old. The family was made up of well-educated and successful businessmen, teachers and lawyers and I was ill suited for teaching so favoured the law or business. And then, as the story so often goes, I met a woman." He saw Riley's eyes widen and nodded. "Yes, as you might expect that is where the trouble began. She was married, though unhappily, having been the victim of an arranged marriage and I filled the void left in that unhappy marriage. I cared not that it might go nowhere further. But he was Spanish, a man of high bred lineage and when he found out about the affair he challenged me to a duel."
"They still have those?"
Mountain Bill laughed. "Unofficially, but yes they certainly do. He was no match for me with any weapon, sword or pistol and the duel would've ended badly for him no matter what. But her name would also have been ruined and I couldn't have that. So I saw her one last time and then I left, heading west with all I owned on me and the one pack animal. The mountains had always had a draw for me, even as a child, and I loved to hunt and trap. When I wanted to get away from everything, it was a natural choice. And I've been happy here, really happy with only occasional wonderings about friends and family left behind."
"Then this," he said, pointing to the envelope.
"It seems I left more behind than I thought," he said. "As I said, the marriage was an unhappy one, more for convenience, and there was no marital intercourse she assured me. Of that I remain sure. And yet she, Marina, had twins some eight months after I left. A boy and a girl. I have learned that in the documents in this envelope. Your Mr. Alembert found the only person alive who knew I was in these mountains to receive this information, though how he did that remains a mystery. The documents confirm the birth and that her husband has recently died leaving her wealthy and free. It seems he knew who the father of the children was, or suspected, but since I am also fairly dark skinned, the resemblance to him was plausible. He could ill afford to have anyone know otherwise, nor could she, so they raised the children as their own. With his death, she has told the children the truth, though I wish she had not, and this envelope includes a letter from each which are not the repudiation I deserve but entreaties to return. The boy, Ethan, writes that his father was kind but cool and detached and now he understands more clearly why. And Marina writes that she has loved no other and entreats me to return."
"And so . . ."
He shook his head. "I cannot, Riley. It would be absurd, a circus."
"If there's money, they can come out here to live," Riley offered.
Mountain Bill laughed long and loud. "That's the other amusement, my friend. There is also a letter in there from your Mr. Alembert advising that I am the sole heir of my maternal grandparent, a very wealthy industrialist, who has left me nothing less than a small fortune in today's terms."
"Then what's the problem?"
Mountain Bill got up and paced. "To turn back the clock, you mean? There are a thousand problems, Riley. A million. They don't know me or anything about me. I'm merely an idea, a curiosity to them. They might take to me, they might not. It would mean leaving behind a life that has pleased me for fifteen years to return to one that may never. From a simple existence to a most complicated one. And think about it. Do I have the right to disrupt their lives? Do they have a right to expect it? The problems abound, my friend!"
Riley shook his head. "Daniel, some things don't deserve the amount of thinking we give them. For a moment, and in all seriousness, look to your heart. Where does it want to go?"
"Ah, Riley, if I knew that it'd be so easy."
"It may sound trite, but what have you got to lose by seeing them?"
Another laugh. "Myself, Riley, only myself. Still, there's that kernel of responsibility residing within me that persuades me that what you say is true and that I must see them. But going back to that world and that life frightens me, me being one who's never been frightened here in the mountains."
"The dangers in the mountain are predictable and preventable," Riley offered. "These dangers are less so. Still, if I might suggest, you could meet them on neutral ground. Meet in Memphis. My employer owns an estate outside the city that could serve as a comfortable meeting place for the four of you."
"Would he agree?"
Riley nodded. "I believe so. He speaks of this woman as a friend and he has few such. Alembert, like yourself I presume, would do anything for a friend."
"Then we shall do it," Mountain Bill said. "I'll again become Daniel Atherton, at least for some time, and we shall see what unfolds."
He hesitated. "Will you accompany me to Albertville?"
"I must alter my appearance accordingly," Atherton said. "So as not to unnerve them with the rough and unkempt appearance of the mountain man. And I must attend to my language."
"Your language is excellent," Riley said, "And it has lost nothing over the years, I can assure you."
They returned to Atherton's cabin higher in the mountains and he packed the things he would need to take with him. Each carried a full pack on their backs and he also had two mules, heavily laden, that could handle the mountains with ease. As they walked away from the cabin on an overcast but dry morning, Mountain Bill looked back only once.
"I wonder if I'll ever see this place again."
"You will," Riley said with certainty. "With your family, I imagine. They would want to see it because it's a part of who you are."
"We'll see. It's not much."
The stay in Albertville was short, sufficient enough for Atherton to get a bath, shave and haircut and two sets of new clothes for the trip. Matt Riley wired Ben Alembert bringing him up to date and Alembert agreed to host the reunion and to convey the invitation to Marina Del Bello and her children.
They arranged for care of the mules and took the stagecoach north and east, choosing it over travelling on the train. It was eight days of steady travelling before they rode up to Ben Alembert's huge estate north and east of Memphis, sheltered by the tall Green Mountains. Over those long days of travel they spoke often and came to be friends, finding many similarities in their personal experiences and philosophies of life and living.
Ben Alembert met them at the gate to the large estate and Riley introduced him to Daniel Atherton.
"Your guests have already arrived and are anxious to meet you," Alembert said. He turned as a servant came toward them. "Marina, the two children and a friend and travelling companion of hers, a Miss Leah Thompson. Anthony will take you to them. Take your time with the reunion. She's a beautiful woman, Mr. Atherton, and a wise one. Remember that always. When you wish to dine, signal Anthony with the bell you'll find in the quarters. He'll be close by and will have staff bring food for you. We'll speak later in the evening."
With a glance to Matt Riley, Daniel Atherton followed Anthony up the path toward the guest house in the distance. His walk reflected his uncertainty and doubt. Matt Riley could blame him for neither.
Riley accompanied Alembert to the main house and into the den where Alembert poured them some fine Madeira wine.
"Any trouble finding him?"
Riley shook his head. "Not really. You had the starting point from his friend back home and I had good directions from the people in Albertville at the foot of the mountain. A couple of days into the hike we sort of just found each other. The only challenge was talking him into coming down off the mountain to meet his family. For a while there I thought he might decline."
"Can you blame him?" Alembert said. "It's been fifteen years and he'd left that life behind for the one in the mountains."
"Which he hated to walk away from," Matt Riley said. "And I can't blame him. It was unsettlingly beautiful and peaceful up there. Each time I'm in the mountains I've a new appreciation for the hold they have on people."
"You weren't up there in the winter," Alembert countered.
"True enough. Still, it was a nice change from the cities. Is there anything else you need me to do? If not, I'm heading back to town."
Alembert considered. "I think you'd best wait around here a day or so to see what unfolds with Mr. Atherton and his new-found family. I may have need of your services yet, Matt. Anthony has prepared a guest suite for you upstairs. Why don't you unpack, clean up and then join me down here. I've a feeling we'll be seeing Mr. Atherton rather shortly."
Riley did so, unpacking in the large guest room and marveling at the sheer size of Alembert's property. The lawyer was far wealthier than most of his colleagues even imagined, having arrived in Memphis to open his offices already a very wealthy man and made even richer by the success he had in his law practice. He lived simply, save for this estate, his one concession to his accumulated wealth and it was his favoured escape from the growing city of Memphis. Riley was one of only a handful of people who were permitted on the estate.
He joined Alembert downstairs. They ate at a counter in the large kitchen, then retired to the even larger living room where they chatted for another half-hour before Anthony escorted Daniel Atherton into the room.
Riley thought Atherton looked a lot more relaxed. "How did it go?"
"Better than I imagined," Atherton replied. "They were more understanding of what had happened than I might have been at their age. They're mature for their age, a tribute to both parents they assure me. They hold a strong fondness for Diego Del Bello and I like them for that, as he provided well for them."
Atherton blushed a little. "Still most strikingly beautiful and for reasons that astonish me, she's still as much in love with me as I am with her."
"So, what happens next?" Ben Alembert asked, the lawyer in him always seeking information and a path forward.
Atherton shrugged. "We didn't really get into that, though it'll surely be a conversation we must have quite soon, I expect. We were wondering if we could take advantage of your hospitality for another few days?"
Alembert smiled. "You may stay as long as you need, Daniel. As long as you need. My home has rarely been used for such a noble cause. And now, if you'll both excuse me, there's reading that must be done. I'll be gone early in the morning, but Anthony is always at your service." He shook Atherton's hand, winked at Matt Riley and headed upstairs to his study and rooms.
"A very hospitable man, your employer and Marina's friend," Daniel Atherton observed. "I hope he knows how much we appreciate that, and his kindness toward Marina. She speaks well of his friendship."
"He's a good friend to have, but you wouldn't want to be in court against him," Matt Riley observed. "He plays to win."
"I'll bet he does," Daniel Atherton said, nodding. "We're going to have coffee on the patio outside the guest house. I wondered if you would join us. Marina wants to meet you and thank you for finding me and bringing me here safely."
"I'd like that," Matt Riley said. They took the path back toward the guest house where he was introduced to Marina Del Bello and Leah Thompson. Marina would have been in her early forties, Matt guessed and had the striking good looks so common to Spanish women. Leah was perhaps a few years younger and her skin tone and hair suggested a mixed parentage of white and perhaps Spanish, he could not he sure. But it was an attractive combination.
"I want to thank you for brining Daniel back to me, Mr. Riley," Marina said, her deep and modulated voice a perfect match to her Spanish appearance. "We've been given a second chance at a wonderful life together and we don't want to waste any time moving forward with that."
"I'm glad I could do my small part," Matt said.
"Is this what you do?" Leah Thompson asked. "Find people?"
Matt laughed. "Among other things," he replied. "Generally I do the things Ben Alembert assigns me to do. He's my employer and he calls the shots."
"So you work for lawyers as their operational agent?"
"I like the term," Riley said. "Though I don't have a particular title. And I work only for Ben Alembert, no one else."
"He has sufficient work to keep you occupied?"
"Most of the time. When not, I have other interests."
"Really," Marina Del Bellow said, "what might they be?"
"I like to hike in the mountains where I spend a lot of my free time, away from the hustle of Memphis and the challenges of the work that I do, which can be trying at times. It's a place to regenerate and relax."
Marina Del Bello laughed and turned to Leah Thompson. "Ben has told me much more about this Matt Riley. He says that he is at once the kindest and most dangerous man Ben has ever met, and by far the most capable one. It's a rare and ebullient compliment from one who uses such sparingly."
Daniel Atherton's eyebrows had gone up. "He doesn't seem the type to offer such compliments likely. I may have to reassess my impression of you, my friend." He laughed and Matt Riley found himself joining in.
They enjoyed the coffee and chatted about the little things of life.
"Where are the children?" Matt asked. "I'd like to meet them."
"They've headed to bed, exhausted emotionally and physically," Marina replied, "but they're also very much looking forward to meeting the man who brought back their father. They're both to turn sixteen in a few weeks, Max being the older by four minutes, as he'll tell you, and Celia being the more dominant and assertive. Max looks like Daniel, Celia much like myself."
"We'll be including them in any decisions about what comes next," Daniel said. "Much of tomorrow's conversation will be about that, about where we go from here. What are your plans, Matt?"
"Ben has asked me to stay around until you're sure there's nothing more for me to do to assist you. Then he'll have other assignments or I'll take some time in the mountains. Either's fine with me."
The wistful look on Daniel Atherton's face when Matt mentioned the mountains was evident to the three of them and Marina looked meaningfully at Matt before turning back to Daniel Atherton. "My Daniel, do you miss them so much already, those mountains? I can see this in your face."
He looked lovingly at her. "I miss them a great deal, Marina, but my longing for them is as nothing compared with my longing for you these past fifteen years. There is no comparison. The mountains can wait."
"Why don't you two head to your rooms," Leah said. "It's been a trying day. Mr. Riley will keep me company while I finish this delicious coffee."
They smiled, and then, hand in hand, walked to the guest house.
She laughed. "They'll not sleep together yet, Mr. Riley. It wouldn't be proper. They do that for the sake of the children."
He nodded, understanding. "Where do you fit in?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Marina and I have always been close. Our mothers were from the same village in Spain. They spent their early years together before coming across the sea to America. Her mother married a Spanish nobleman, mine an American newspaperman. Despite cultural differences, we remain close. She wanted me here for support. But it was as if they'd never been apart."
"What do you do?"
She laughed a light engaging laugh. "Not much. My mother's family was quite wealthy and when she died I inherited sufficient funds for a long and comfortable life. My father recently retired from his newspapers. He owns several, and he writes occasional editorials when something or other bothers him enough to write. The rest of the time he spends with friends at his club or hunting outside Charleston. I suppose I'm seeking something I can be passionate about, and haven't yet found it. I envy the variety in your work for Mr. Alembert."
"The variety and the travel involved do appeal to me. But it's the people who interest me the most, how they manage challenges and opportunities." He decided to change the subject. "Tell me about Max and Celia."
"They're as unalike as two children can be. Max is a quiet and contemplative young man, bright and quick to learn. He's already a chess master at his school and reads voraciously. He's athletic but athletics don't appeal to him. He's more intellectual than physical in his pastimes. Celia's the opposite, bright as well, but fiery and dynamic. I cannot imagine the man who'll hold her affection, though I hope one will emerge at some point. The boys adore her and the girls tolerate her as she's better than most at anything she decides to do. But her attentiveness is short-lived and she moves on to whatever strikes her fancy next."
"Definitely not peas-in-a-pod."
She shook her head. "Max is like his mother in temperament, Celia unlike either Marina or Diego and perhaps like Daniel. It's too soon to know."
"Do you like him?"
She nodded. "I like how he looks at Marina and I like how she looks at him. It's Shakespearian, their love for each other and from tragedy has come joy."
"Nicely put. I assume your father's not the only writer in the family."
"Too true," she said, smiling. "But he's an artist with words. I throw them at people and issues and I'd like some day to attain his skill."
"Then you will. Perhaps that's the work that will ignite your passion. Does writing for a newspaper appeal to you?"
She shook her head. "I've tried, and of course had ample opportunities, but it doesn't captivate and engage me the way it does others, at least not so far."
"There's time. You're young."
She laughed. "Try telling that to a father who feels that he should have some grandchildren by now and laments my delay in providing them."
"Parents live for grandkids, grandkids for their grandparents."
"What about your parents. Don't they nettle you about it?"
A dark cloud passed over his face and for just a moment he was absolutely still and silent. Then it passed as quickly as it had come. "My parents are dead so I'm free of such reminders." And then he was back to himself.
"It's getting late and the bugs will be out soon," he said, rising. "I suggest you turn in before they arrive. I'll see you tomorrow."
He headed down to the main house and she watched for a few minutes until he disappeared. Now what is the story behind that, she wondered. Then she headed for her room, knowing she would likely not sleep well. She had asked an innocent enough question but it had killed the mood and precipitously ended what was a charming conversation. She felt bad but realized she could not have known. And now the writer's curiosity had been awakened.
She rose early, dressed and sat on the balcony, waiting until she saw Matt Riley leave the main house and head toward the stables. She went quickly and quietly down the back stairs and over to the main house just as Ben Alembert was coming out a side door.
"Good morning, Miss Thompson," he said to her amiably. "If you're looking for breakfast, Maria's already in the kitchen and will fix you something."
"Thank you," she said, "but I was actually looking for you."
"How can I help you?"
"I was talking with Matt Riley last night, and we were having a pleasant time, when I happened to ask about his parents. And everything changed. I know I hit a tender spot but I don't know what that was, and I'd like to know."
"That's his business, my dear," Alembert said. "I'm sure by this morning it's not something he remembers or frets about."
"I'm sure you are right, but I remember and am fretting about it and I'd very much appreciate you telling me, in confidence, what I need to know."
Alembert paused, considering and reflecting on more than she appreciated. Then he nodded. "Very well, the brief version. Matt's parents were killed in a raid during the latter part of the war along with a number of others who lived on ranches on the outskirts of Nashville. It was a bad time all around. Matt was only seventeen at the time, their only child and he took it hard. He buried them and then stayed on the ranch for a year but could not stand it, gave it away and moved on, taking whatever work he could find, always moving, always searching."
Alembert nodded. "To find those responsible."
"And did he?"
Alembert nodded once again. "It took him almost ten years, my dear, but he confronted and dealt with ten of those who'd been in the raiding party, including the three ringleaders. Then he had enough of vengeance and dropped out of sight. I met him some few years after that and knew nothing of it until he told me. It's sad to say that it's an all too familiar story. There are many such that came out of a war that no one wanted, no one needed and no one really won."
She nodded. "I'm sure there's more to the story, but that is sufficient. I thank you for sharing it with me and will not disclose it to anyone."
"I'll count on that," Alembert said. "Now I must be off to Memphis and the office. There's much to be done for Daniel and Marina as well as others."
She followed the path toward the horse stables. She found Matt Riley inside brushing down a big black horse.
"He's beautiful," she said.
"Yes, he is," he replied. "One of Ben Alembert's rare expenditures based solely on emotion and not investment logic. And the only horse he'll ride. I gentled it for him when he bought it in Virginia and had it shipped to Memphis."
"I thought from the care it might have been yours."
He shook his head. "I don't own a horse. When I need one, I rent one from any of the Memphis livery stables. They know me well by now and what kind of horses I prefer. If I start from here I might borrow one of Ben's. He has a small herd of horses that he keeps in a meadow to the west. I travel by stagecoach, train or boat as often as I do by horseback so owning one right now isn't a high priority. It will be someday."
"I hope so. I think horses are some of the most intelligent of all animals and you can tell a lot about people by the animals they choose and how they care for them. At least that's been my experience."
"I agree," Riley said. They heard a sound and turned to see Daniel Atherton enter the stable. "Thought I'd take Marina for a ride to see some of the country. Do you think Ben would mind us using a couple of his horses?"
"Not at all," Matt Riley said. "I brought some down early this morning. Pick two out of the corral back there. There are saddles and gear in the back room at the far end of the stable." He reached down and handed a rifle to Atherton. "It's fully loaded, Daniel. Need a hand with the horses?"
Atherton shook his head, took the rifle and headed to the back of the stable.
"Does he need a rifle out here?" Leah asked. "I wouldn't think there's much danger to be found around this estate."
Riley looked surprised. "Out here, as you put it, no one would consider leaving home without a rifle, or at least a pistol. Out in the open you might have to deal with a variety of things from wild animals, difficult people, the need to hunt for a meal or simply to signal for help if you are lost or get hurt."
"Guess I'm still a city girl," she said, smiling. "I see what you mean. Things are so different out here, even though much looks the same. I suppose I'll have to spend more time out here before I really understand the differences."
Atherton returned leading two saddled horses. "We'll not be gone long," he said. "Anthony gave us directions to the canyon waterfalls Ben suggested. We'll go there, have a picnic and then come straight back. We should be back in four hours or a little less." He turned toward Leah. "The kids will come looking for you when they get up. Anthony will let them know we've gone for a ride. They know we've some talking and planning to do and we need time alone."
He led the saddled horses out toward the guest house where they presumed Marina was waiting for him and a couple of minutes later they heard the horses heading north from the estate.
Riley knew the waterfalls they mentioned and they were spectacular. It would be a perfect spot for a picnic and a serious conversation.
"That's another thing we do out here," Matt Riley said. "We tell people where we're going and when to expect us back. Then if there's a problem people know when to begin to get concerned about us and where to start looking. It can save a life and it's a simple thing when you come to think about it."
"I'd have a lot to learn if I lived out here," she said. "Though living out here isn't really something that's in my plans."
"You'd learn, though," Matt replied. "You're a bright woman." He grinned at her and then went back to working on the black horse. Leah headed back to the guest house to have breakfast and see to the two children.
Matt worked around the stable and barn for the next little while doing the various chores that others could do but he saw they needed doing and so just did them from long habit. Leah Thompson returned to the stable an hour later with the two children in tow and Matt could see right away what she meant about them being very different. Max had a serious inquiring look about him while Celia had a broad smile and eyes that sparkled and danced. Leah introduced them.
"You found my father for us," Max said. A statement.
"Well, we sort of found each other," Matt said. "I was looking for him and he heard me coming up the mountain so he came down from his cabin to meet me, see who I was and what I wanted. We got along well from that point."
"Well, thank you anyway," Celia said. "He's everything mother said he'd be and perhaps a little bit more. I like him."
"I like him too," Matt Riley said, then turned to Max. "What do you think about all of this, Max? Leah tells me you're a thinker?"
"I like him alright but it's only been a short while that we've known each other and I think such relationships take time to develop and mature. We have to give ourselves the time for that to happen."
"Sound thinking," Matt replied. "Since the two of you are staying around for another couple of days from the sound of it, what would you like to do?"
"I'm going to catch up on some reading," Max said. "I brought some books with me, and I'd like to do some hiking in the hills."
"I want to ride," Celia said. "I've only ridden a few times but I love it. I don't get many chances to ride back home."
"Then after lunch," Matt said, "Max can use the library in the main house to catch up on his reading and we'll go riding up in the hills. Tomorrow morning we'll all hike in the mountains to the east of the house together. It's not too challenging a hike but it has great scenery. How's that?"
The both nodded in agreement.
"I'm going to get them some brunch," Leah Thompson said. "Then we can take that ride you were talking about, if you don't mind me coming along?"
"Not at all," Matt Riley said, and meant it.
Two days later the Atherton family and Leah Thompson left the estate to return to Virginia. Before leaving, Daniel Atherton took Matt aside.
"I cannot begin to thank you for what you've done for me, for us," he said. "Finding me in the mountains and especially entertaining Max, Celia and Leah the past few days while Marina and I worked things through together."
"You have a plan?"
He nodded. "To return to Virginia to settle some things there, family and financial, and then perhaps a new start there or somewhere out west. Either would suit us equally we've discovered, as long as we're together."
"If you end up out west I presume it'll be somewhere not too far from the Copper Mountains?" Riley asked, smiling.
The smile was returned. "Somewhere not too far from a particular mountain, in any case. It was Marina's suggestion. She and the kids want to see where I've spent the past fifteen or so years and I'm only too happy to show them, although I'm a bit embarrassed by its roughness. They're used to the finer things in life and my little cabin on the mountain isn't at all what they imagine it to be. I might invite you to come along."
"I'll look forward to it," Matt said, shaking Atherton's hand. "You know how to find me when you're ready for the trip. Just let me know."
The weeks passed quickly for Riley. Alembert had a number of tasks for him and he ended up spending almost three of those weeks travelling north and west on errands for Alembert. He returned to Alembert's estate late one afternoon a month after his last visit. Over dinner, Alembert handed him a letter. "For you."
It was from Daniel Atherton, indicating that the family would be heading west the following month and wanted to know if Matt Riley could meet them in Albertville and travel with them up into the mountain to Mountain Bill's old retreat.
He looked at Alembert. "What do you think?"
Alembert nodded. "I'd like you to do so if you can, on the condition that it's a paid assignment from my office. And I'd like you to do one thing more." He explained and Matt Riley smiled and nodded in agreement.
"I'd never turn down an offer like that," Riley said, smiling.
And so, six weeks later, in the early morning, Matt Riley was waiting at the train station in Copper Bluff when the train hissed and whistled its way into the town. On telegraphed instructions from Daniel Atherton, relayed through Alembert, he had made the necessary arrangements, horses, supplies and so on that would be needed to get them to the high mountains. It was August and the weather was just right for such as trek with warm days and cool nights.
He walked down the boardwalk in front of the train station and saw the door of the third passenger car open. Daniel Atherton stepped down, smiled and waved at Riley and then turned to help Marina down. The kids came behind and then, to Matt's surprise, Leah Thompson descended the step to join them.
Daniel shook Matt's hand and then looked down at it. "You've acquired some callouses since we last met. Been chopping wood?"
Matt just smiled. "No, just another of Ben Alembert's tasks."
The greetings were brief and warm and Matt led them down the street to the livery barn where the horses were waiting. He had selected them carefully at Tisbury's ranch south of Copper Butte. The British former Brigadier-General raised horses for the army and did so with great care and expertise and he had helped Matt select horses that would suit them best given where they were going. Now Matt realized he needed one more horse but he could get that from Dunson's livery easily enough. Dunson kept a decent string of horses.
"I hope you don't mind that I tagged along," Leah Thompson said, smiling at him, "But it seemed to good an adventure to pass up."
"Besides," Marina Atherton, adding that now that she and Daniel had been married, "She wanted to see you again, Matt. Be careful of this one."
"I will," Matt Riley said.
He rented a Montana horse for Leah and they loaded up all the animals and headed out later that morning. Despite riding the train for several days and nights, they all wanted to get on their way quickly.
They rode for two hours before stopping by a wide rushing stream for lunch. Marina and Celia took on the job of cooking while Max took care of the horses, unsaddling them, brushing them down and letting them drink downstream from the campsite and munch on fresh river grass. He enjoyed the responsibility.
They had a simple meal, chatting amiably about the past few weeks.
"The wedding was a simple one with close family," Marina said. "It was impossible, of course, to keep the story to ourselves and so my family and Diego's now know everything. Of course, many already suspected it and his parents, still alive and very active, were most kind and understanding, more so than I had a right to expect from them."
"We decided to remain on the ranch in Virginia, at least for the time being," Daniel added. "This trip is a getaway, a chance for them to see where I've been living for the past fifteen years. I warned them what to expect."
"I'm sure it's a fine cabin, Daniel," Marina said. "It is a cabin, after all, and we know what a cabin looks like."
"Actually, it's more like a lean-to than a formal cabin, though a rather large one, but you'll see that for yourself the day after tomorrow," he replied. "Then you can judge for yourself. Just don't expect too much."
They rode for the afternoon, stopping from time to time to enjoy the scenery and to let those who did less riding take breaks to walk around and stretch. Marina and Matt were the riders of the group, though Celia was a natural. Daniel, in his years in the mountains had ridden, of course, but more often walked and ran through the woods. Max read more than he had ridden. And Leah, as a city woman, rode much less and was finding the riding a challenge. "I may not be able to sit by the end of the day," she said, laughing. "I'm starting to hurt in places where I didn't even know I had places."
They found a nice spot for an overnight campsite an hour before dark and had a meal. The two children headed for their blankets as soon as darkness fell while the four adults sat around the fire some time longer.
"I can never get over the incredible vastness of the wilderness," Leah commented. "And how bright the sky can be when the lights of the city don't diminish the brilliance of the stars. I can certainly see how someone can come to love the openness and solitude."
"They were my companions for many years," Daniel Atherton said, "and I've missed them. It's one reason I wanted to show you some of my past."
They were up with the sun and on their way early, knowing they would arrive at Mountain Bill's cabin early the next morning. The day was a repetition of the one before, with steady riding interspersed with regular breaks. They began to climb the lower range in the midafternoon with the mountains looming over them.
"Are we going all the way to the very top of the mountain?" Max asked, eyes wide with excitement.
His father shook his head. "No, Max, we'll go about a third of the way up. Any further and the trees rapidly thin out and there's nothing but rock and eventually snow. Not good for hunting or trapping past the tree line. We'll be at the cabin midmorning."
Another early morning meal and early start and they were climbing, but the climb was more challenging now. Matt had selected horses with this in mind and as they wove across the mountain from side to side, climbing ever higher, the horses handled the load and the slope with ease.
"Are we riding all the way to your cabin?" Celia asked.
Matt Riley answered. "No. There's a meadow about an hour from here where we can leave the horses. Then it's about a half-hour hike to the cabin."
Daniel Atherton looked over at Matt Riley and the question was in his eyes. He knew Matt had been as far up the mountain as the cabin but wondered how Matt knew about the meadow or how far it was to the cabin.
Matt merely winked and grinned.
An hour later they rode into the valley, seeing a cedar post corral at one end of it. The gate to the corral was open. They rode in and got down from their horses. They unsaddled, stacking saddles on a bench made for that purpose. Then they transferred their loads to packsacks brought along to carry. They headed out, Daniel in the lead and Matt bringing up the rear.
But before that, Daniel Atherton had taken Matt aside. "There was no corral here before, Matt. What's going on?"
Matt shrugged. "I came up here a month ago and I've been doing a little work to spruce the place up. Hope you don't mind. I wanted it to make a good impression and it needed a bit of work before they could see it. Don't say anything, please. It was the least I could do and I enjoyed being up here."
Daniel Atherton clapped him on the shoulder. "You're a good man, Matt. I don't know where we'd be without you."
They climbed for a little more than a half-hour and then crested a rise and saw the cabin below them in a picturesque little valley.
"This is Mountain Bill's lair," Daniel said. "Welcome one and all!"
The cabin was indeed more of a lean-to than a four-walled cabin, with one of the walls being a rock face against which it sat. There was a thatched roof that looked particularly solid and waterproof and which Daniel Atherton knew had been recently repaired. He shook his head in understanding.
Inside the cabin it was bright, open and spotless! The windows were clean, the furniture, solid and handmade though rough-hewn, had been dusted and cushions sat on each chair. There was cutlery and glassware for meals and a fresh stack of firewood beside both the stove and stone fireplace.
"I must say, my dear, that you keep a neater place than I'd have expected from your description. It's quite homey and inviting," Marina offered. "And it's much larger than I'd imagined."
Matt shook his head at Daniel's look.
Then Marina grinned. "Of course, it's obvious, Matt, that you've been up here for a while and set all of this up, even the corral. I may not know much about such things, but that corral was clearly new as was the roof of this cabin and two of the walls. And the stack of firewood, really? But I thank you."
"I wanted you to have a good impression of this place and of the mountains," Matt replied. "Since I didn't know if this was a once-in-a-lifetime visit or simply the first of many such trips. So I did a little sprucing up. In particular, and I think this will please you, I built an outhouse just past the rock cut behind the cabin."
Marina and Leah laughed at that. "We'll certainly appreciate it. I presume that means there wasn't an old one."
They stayed at the cabin for three enjoyable days, the kids wandering the hills and the adults enjoying the quiet beauty of the mountains and the hills. Daniel took Marina and the kids on a guided tour showing them where he had set traps, dug out sulphur and iron and other raw materials he had needed and where he had planted various small gardens and trees here and there around the area.
Leah and Matt stayed closer to the cabin, letting the family roam and enjoy each other's company to the fullest.
"It's really a marvelous place," Leah offered. "It suits you, Matt, as much as it suited Daniel all those years."
Matt shrugged. "I find I can adapt as easily to the wilderness as to the big cities as long as I don't have too much of either all at once."
"What's next for you, Matt?"
"More of the same, I expect. Ben always has a list of interesting things for me to do and I've not grown tired of that yet. What about you?"
"Well I've been writing a bit more for the papers my father still owns and I find I'm a bit more motivated than I had been. But I can do that from anywhere that has a good postal service or telegraph. I'm not limited to one place. I can even work from Memphis, if that would be of interest to you." She smiled.
"That would be of great interest to me," he replied. "We'll have to talk about that when we have more time. Might I suggest that once we put the Athertons on the train that you and I spend a few days back up here by ourselves?"
They were interrupted by the return of the Athertons. "Well, folks, tomorrow we head back east to take up our lives," Daniel Atherton said. "I don't know when we'll return here. And so," he said, turning to Matt Riley, "I invite you to spend as much time as you like here and to treat it as your own, a place you can come to when you need to get away. What would you say to that?"
"I'd say thank you," Matt Riley responded.