He restarted the fire with what wood and kindling remained, and set his small pot to boil while he packed up the rest and prepared to leave. An hour later, coffee and a handful of jerky later, he was back on the move, the sun at his back.
By day’s end he found himself at the mouth of a valley, a small river carving its way through a thick meadow. A few of the trees seemed fruit-bearing, and he noted a few patches of wild berries randomly mixed among them. Birds sang in the treetops, and more than one kind of track led between the treeline and the water’s edge. Likely beavers, judging by a few of the felled trees and gnaw marks he saw on the occasional trunk, and probably a mountain lion den close by to hunt them. Plenty to hear to fish and trap, and even a flattened rise up high enough to set up a sturdy shelter.
Just like that, he decided on his next few months of living. By week’s end, he had a functioning encampment constructed: firepit, horse enclosure, latrine, and even a rudimentary watercatch to gather the rain near the shelter. The rider had built a couple of drying racks for skins, as well as a frame to dry and smoke some of the meat he expected to catch while here. He had already laid out some traps and found good areas to fish, and felt generally at home here.
On the second week, a small band of the locals rode along the edge of the tree line while he was skinning his second beaver. He stopped what he was doing once he noticed their passing, letting them know that he saw them but that he meant them only respect. If they had any problem with him, they would be back to kill him, but he imagined they were only likely to come around with one of their tribal elders to arrange a trade in exchange for him working the land a while. In the twenty or so years he had been making his way through the west, he had picked up enough of their language that between that and his bad English and worse French he didn’t have a significant problem with communicating. When words failed, a stick in the dirt seemed to do the trick, too. Though maybe only another two or three dozen trappers worked this particular range of mountains, he trusted that his past interactions would be enough of a foundation to offer him good will with any concerns the locals might have.
As the small party moved on and out of the valley, he found himself smiling at the thought of their return. They had been the first people he had even seen in near a month, now; he nearly missed the idea of socializing with others. Certainly, the living had so much more to offer than the dead.
The following night, the voice found him once again.
And once again, it lingered just beyond the scope of his fire, calling to the rider by his Christian name.
The rider fought it off with the last of his flask, letting sleep claim him among the echoes of the dead. He could still feel the unanswered calls as he woke the next morning. By the time he chased the hangover off with a cup of strong coffee, he was again alone.
Another few days and nights passed, and the rider carried on as he had done. He woke to the lightening sky, broke fast, checked his traps, caring for whatever he might find there or fishing if the traps were still empty. He found a few rabbits, skinning them as well; they were too lean so he boiled them up with some wild onions and a few herbs he had gathered along the way. He had refilled his flask from his ceramic jug, but decided to leave it be for now. He could feel the voice waiting for the twilight, and he found himself resolved to squaring up against it, once and for all. It had followed him all these years and seemed like it was determined to follow him all the way through to the end. “Might as well face what you cannot flee,” he had heard. He couldn’t remember where he had heard it, but the old saying fluttered out and back into whatever faded memory it was borne from.
Sure enough, the voice came back that night as he readied for sleep, calling him as always by his name.
“What do you want?” the rider said to the voice. His own words sounded strange to him; he hadn’t used them in a while, now. “Can’t offer you much in the way of hospitality.”
He could feel it now, as tangibly as if someone was strolling into his camp.
“Don’t suppose you’ve just come here for the coffee.”
A slight breeze crossed through the fire, dropping one of the logs down into the embers and sending a small shower of sparks up into the sky. After another moment of silence, the rider chuckled to himself. Standing, he picked up a block of wood and set it on its side across the firepit from his seat.
“Apologies,” he said, nodding his head. “Take a load off, I guess.”
The shadow said nothing, merely slipping slightly closer and shimmering against the shivering light of the fire.
“Must be loads different, yeah, a dusty old campfire? Not quite the cast iron you had back in the back office?”
He noticed that the shadow seemed to fade a bit at that.
“Sorry. I know you were proud of that. I remember when they set it in, how much you liked to brag about how much it had cost but that you’d paid for it all in cash.” The rider poked one of the logs in the fire, causing another spray of sparks to snap off and float up into the sky. “Never really got why that was such a thing for you.”
“You never knew Ireland,” the shadow whispered.
The rider’s head rose suddenly. “What?”
“I said you never knew Ireland.”
Shaking his head, the rider reached for his flask, unscrewing it slowly with his thumb. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Your ma and I,” the shadow answered, “we saved up for three years to have enough to get the worst space on the worst ship to come to the colonies. Near two dozen of the others on the ship were lost, tossed over the side on the way here. Your older sister passed after we arrived, you and your brothers were sick the first year. Your ma passed when you weren’t more than six. And still we did what we could to give you a home to grow in. And all that… it still a damn sight better’n we left behind.”
“You’ve told me this before,” the rider grumbled, pausing to take a sip from the flask. It burned like a caramel flame down his throat, and rose back up like a gentle steam. “You always told us this.”
“I never told you what we left behind,” the shadow said.
“So tell me now.”
Flames crackled and the wind blew lazily through the trees. A coyote yipped to its pack, no more than a couple miles off, the rider guessed. At last, the shadow answered him.
“Your ma was only fourteen when our parents told us we’d be married, over a debt incurred and a means to resolve it. But there’d been another lad in the town, and they’d fancied one another. Without our parent’s arrangement, like as not she would have married him above me. Your ma never said as such, but I think she still loved him until the end.”
Several moments of silence filled the camp before the shadow continued.
“Even so, after our parents made the announcement, he left town and your ma and I courted, and we got married when she was sixteen. We were happy, and though I’d see her fall sad from time to time, we did do well together and, I think, we were in about as much love as a couple could be. A couple years after, the boy came back. He’d tried his hand in a few businesses in Edinburgh and ended up with nothing but his name. When we came across him in town, he’d cross the street and pass us from the other side, but I never saw his eyes leave her. I had no hate for the man, see, but I know what that kind of envy can do to a soul if it’s carried on too long.”
The shadow seemed to grow darker, its transparent feet looking to rise up from a pair of stones near the fire itself. “Not long after your sister had been born, your ma and I decided to leave not just our families and our town, but the whole of Ireland itself. We had our eye on a ship that would take us to the new England colonies, and, if we had saved for another year we would have taken it. But… we had to leave earlier than we’d planned.”
The rider took another sip and nearly offered the flask to the shadow before reason stayed his hand. “What happened?”
“We had a wee pub there in town – no more than a room with some chairs and a table, with a side room for Declan McGinnes who owned the building – and we’d settle in there from time to time for drinks. You weren’t more than a couple months old at the time, so I only meant for a pint or two, but after three pints, your ma’s former himself walked in with a couple of his friends and started laughing up the drinks, getting loud in their whiskey and such. I tried to keep my eyes in my beer, but then he said something his friends found particularly amusing, and he pointed right over at me as he said it, and I knew exactly what it was he’d been saying.”
The rider found himself clenching his flask hard enough to warp the curved metal.
“I told the man to mind his own drink and leave us be, but it was either the drink or his hate that made him cross over to me,” the shadow said faintly, as if wandering through its own memories. “He threw the first fist – a sloppy fist, just grazed my face. Our friends pushed him back but he came again hard. We took our swings – not an uncommon thing, and the others chose to let us punch ourselves out – but then he pulled a knife and tried at my chest before anyone saw the blade. He only got a button off my shirt, but I caught his arm and tried to wrestle the knife away. I remember someone screaming out, and I remember the expression on his face. It was pale, and there was this sound coming out of his mouth, like a little stream. He was still holding the knife, but the blade had gotten turned around and had come up into his chest. I can still feel that scrape it made when it pushed past his ribs. And then I remember him coughing, and the blood on his lips. He fell to the floor, still trying to hold on to me, but I remember my friends grabbing me by the arms, and running me home. I….remember them helping throw what they could into sacks and putting us all in the back of a wagon. I… I remember being on the ship – a ship, and not the one we’d agreed on. And I remember your ma, her face in tears. But I don’t remember why she was crying. I just remember her tears.”
“Did you tell her? What you did, I mean?”
The shadow was silent, and the rider imagined that perhaps it was shaking its head, having forgotten that such a gesture holds no relevance for a spirit.
“I never knew about that.”
“Why would you? It didn’t matter.”
As he thought about this, the rider’s mind floated back to the few memories he had of his mother; of her pale features, the darkness beneath her eyes he had always seen but not truly noticed. He remembered her kindness, her softness. At last, so many years later, he recognized her pain.
When he looked back up, the shadow was gone.
With a sigh, the rider closed the flask and laid down on his bedroll, peering through the dying flames until the sun awoke him.