We had agreed it was too dangerous, and sworn each other to secrecy. It seemed a doubtful thing—a secret can be kept by two men if one of them is dead, and we were four altogether. But I had decided on no more killing. And Charlie's shooting hand was ruined, anyway. Later it had to be cut off entirely.
I thought the lie best. There was more to protect than Warm's formula.
It began the night we couldn't sleep, or at least that was the beginning I saw. We had followed the river to a beaver dam Warm and Morris had scouted before, and made a new camp on the shoreline. Charlie and I were accustomed to sleeping on the ground, under the tarpaulin if it rained, but the other men had a new canvas tent and cots besides. Warm had looked at me petting and consoling my poor horse Tub when we were to set off, and had arranged for he and Morris to split my gear so Tub would only have to carry my weight. Their mules were laden with other furnishings, paid for with Morris’s money, as Warm previously had none of his own until he came into Morris’s acquaintance, and of course the stoppered kegs containing the mysterious formula.
We were in high spirits when Charlie came down to the fire still wearing the Mayfield trapper's cap and grumbling—we were in high spirits after, too. Warm regaled us with more of his philosophies and his dream of a true democratic community in Dallas. Which Charlie scoffed at, as he did so many things in those days when he feared no one and thought nothing of deeper sentiments, or his own humanity.
As I was thinking of how to abandon our old life, and the purposes I might put my share of the gold to, I thought the ideas fine, my heart turning toward this man and his strange hope, but I had little to contribute. The notion that people like the Commodore or Mayfield, if we had not already killed her, would eventually track down such a place and take it over rattled around in my head like rocks and dirt in a cradle.
I was not inclined to say so, because Warm was cheerful, and Charlie was not being too unkind, and then I saw the look on Morris's face while Warm talked. His face was fixed in an expression I could not at first understand. He looked as if he had gone too long with his eyes shut and had just opened them in the brightness at noon, when the shadows disappear and everything can be plainly seen, if one is not too dazzled by the light. I wondered if he was drunk and I was just unaccustomed to seeing him in that state, but Charlie had the main bottle wrapped in his fist, and Morris did not turn his head from gazing at Warm’s lively face to follow the conversation.
I felt a surprised envy for Morris. I had only the red shawl to carry with me, and memories that grew fanciful details every night. And here Morris was in Warm’s constant company since Myrtle Creek, riding abreast in wagon ruts and lying side by side in their crisp clean tent. But Warm’s attention went around the fire to me and Charlie in equal measure, like he was already in his new society among fellow travelers, and I thought better of my jealous feeling. I could see the whole venture falling apart if Warm failed to return Morris’s affection.
Though it turned out shortly afterwards that I need not have worried about that. Charlie and I were sleeping by the fire in our blankets, and Warm and Morris in their tent. Only they were not asleep, and neither was I, waking at a peal of bright, startled laughter that had come from Warm.
I spied them through the flap of their tent left hanging open, and it was clear from the way Morris stood and held his hands out to Warm that he had just made his intentions clear and was braced for rejection. He must have been hurt by the laugh, but Warm smiled and looked Morris steadily in the eye. “If we are going to—” Warm's voice went quiet. I strained to hear. It was the first time since we had met that I had heard him so uncertain; he had a certain confidence when guns were not involved. “Then I want—no, I must have some assurance from you that you will not—”
“Will not what?” Morris laughed; there was a sound of relief in it. “I would think after our association these weeks, that I had finally won your trust in many matters, including the arrangement I am proposing we undertake now.”
“It isn't—look, I know the kinds of misfortunes that have fallen on other men in my position,” Warm said.
A rustle of clothing and leather, the dimming of the lamplight, told me Morris was at the least moving closer to his goal. His voice was soft and fond. “Hermann, there are no other men in your position.”
“You know what I mean. I don’t want to be locked up with murderers and scoundrels because you have another change of heart, or because we are caught out and you cannot abide the loss of reputation.”
“There are only murderers and scoundrels here to catch us out, and my reputation with them is long since ruined.”
Warm sighed, and through the flap of their tent I saw his slim brown hand finally come up to touch Morris's face. “And your heart?”
A grunt at my side alerted me that Charlie was awake. I looked over. His hand was delving into his pants the same way we would plunge our hands into the water for gold.
I kicked him. He made a face at me and did not stop. I put my back to him that I would not have to observe, but this only made it so I was gazing directly at the tent where Warm and Morris were beginning to engage each other in similar fashion. Only they were not going about it in the furtive quick way Charlie was, or how I did with the red shawl pressed to my face or wound about the hand I was not using. Which was no surprise; Morris was a man who took great care of many things, from his usual fine clothes to his letters.
Morris was kissing Warm gently, the kind of kiss I had wanted the girl in Mayfield to pretend to steal from me, tender and full of meaning. His hands—they were good-sized hands, but they were dirtier than I had ever seen them and I was surprised he had let them get that way—worked at the buttons of Warm's pants. Warm's red suspenders were already dangling loose at his hips.
“John,” Warm said, and gave a groan as Morris pressed him back against the tent pole. Then there were more soft sounds of that sort. Warm put one of his hands in Morris's hair, that much I could see of what he was doing, hidden as he was by Morris's taller frame.
“Dear Hermann,” Morris murmured, and bent his head to Warm's neck, making Warm gasp over and over, small shuddering breaths like a man dying. I closed my eyes to stop seeing the joy in Warm's face. I thought he was not a man who liked to keep secrets, and that perhaps he had held this one as tightly to his chest as the priceless formula.
“Christ, just fuck already,” Charlie bellowed, and my eyes flew open again.
There was a commotion in the tent, and soon after Morris came storming out, flames shining in his eyes and on his revolver. Behind him, Warm had pulled up his pants and begun, shakily, to laugh.
I sat up; Charlie remained lying where he was, grinning evilly as Morris shouted. “I should not have let Hermann talk me out of killing you!” His gun wavered in his hand. I thought him unlikely to shoot, but I prepared to strike, even though it would destroy Warm's happiness and set them both against us once more. “I knew I was right to mistrust you—what in God's name have you been doing?”
Charlie took his hand out of his pants. “Calm down, Maurice,” he said, in his mocking tone. “I wanted to help you and dear Hermann along—”
Morris shook with fury, and I thought perhaps I should intervene. “Morris, you know Charlie to be a rascal,” I said. “Especially when he is drunk.”
“I’m not drunk,” Charlie said. It was a lie; if a spark from the fire had landed on him, he would have gone up in an instant. “And Eli was watching you too, it wasn’t just me.”
Morris rounded on me. I put my hands up to placate him, looking down the black muzzle of his gun for the second time in as many days, and said, “We’ll go back to sleep. Go back to—to Warm.” Morris looked like he wanted to spit in my face—I raised my eyebrows, and he thought better of it, and holstered his revolver.
“I was right to mistrust you,” he said again, and marched off. Charlie opened his mouth to say something else cutting, or to laugh at Morris’s retreating back, and I crammed my hand over his mouth before he could.
The next morning as I was relieving myself—downstream of the dam, there was no telling what mixing urine and Warm's concoction would do, and I was not going to wake him to ask—Morris came up to me.
“I am sorry I flew at you and Charlie last night in such a rage,” he said.
“Charlie was in the wrong,” I said, generously.
“It is only—” Morris starred out at the river, and when I was done, he looked hard at me. “It has taken me this long to make sense of how to go about courting a man, and a man such as Hermann at that. He is so good and has such affection for all men, that I was jealous of it for myself. And to discover you—no, not you, Eli, I know you would not have sullied yourself the way your brother did. To discover Charlie making a mockery of—of the tenderness that I was—that I hoped—”
Morris was working himself up into quite the fervor again.
“Hermann was not ashamed,” he said, eventually. “I had thought he would be, from the secretive way he spoke about men like him. He has little to be ashamed of, in truth. And he bears you and Charlie no ill will, for all that you were going to torture him to death, because you came around and have joined our company. I think he may even feel a true fondness for you, now that you have shown signs of the spirit he believes resides in every man's heart, in quitting the Commodore.”
I made some noise to that effect, and Morris seemed reassured.
“But if you touch him in any manner save friendship, I will kill you,” he said. And although I knew Morris for a dandy who put on airs like he put on a fresh coat, I also knew he was not exaggerating.
Later still, after I had found poor Tub dead at the bottom of the ravine, Warm walked with me through the trees above the camp. He was a comfort, being a great listener as I poured out the dark poisonous tale of our family, and not once letting slip the horror his kind heart must have felt.
“I can't understand how you can countenance men like us in your perfect society,” I said, morosely. I looked down at Charlie and Morris moving logs and stones about in the river. “Even if Charlie is changing.”
Warm looked at me strangely, and I thought he would comment that I was changing into someone worthy of his project. But instead he said, “Morris changed, didn't he?”
“How did you go about doing it?” I asked.
“Eli, we were interrupted before we could get that far last night,” Warm said. It was an odd thing to say; I looked at him expecting reproach, but only an amused light shone out of his dark eyes.
“How did you convince him not to give you over to us?” I said. “Morris was the Commodore's man, same as we were. And if my understanding of last night is correct, it wasn't that you seduced him from his duty.”
Warm chuckled. “No. I actually thought I was wrong about him, after we had ridden and talked and eaten together and I thought we were becoming friends, when he bound me to a chair in irons and stuffed a kerchief in my mouth.” I tried not to think of similar things I had seen in the rooms of Mayfield’s hotel, with the whores screaming and laughing. “But it wasn't that I convinced him,” Warm continued. “I didn't set out to convince him of anything. I didn’t even—” He fell silent, and I watched his curiously expressive face grow thoughtful. “I would like to know what he wrote in his little journal that night, as it turned into morning.”
The words came out before I could stop them. “Wouldn't you like to know what Morris wrote in his little journal last night?”
“You are brothers, aren't you.”
“Don’t be,” Warm told me. He smiled, and I thought it not all that difficult to see how Morris could have fallen in with him.
That night was when everything went black and wrong, though it was not as terrible as I have since made it out to be.
There was an accident with a keg of Warm's formula. There was also the accident of John Morris falling into the water, whereupon Hermann Kermit Warm dove in to save him. But these were two separate concerns, and the only thing that was lost was Charlie's hand, in the end.
Charlie and I were sitting in the sand beside the fire, scrubbing our legs and arms with water and raw soap. We had gone into the river once already that night, and there were a few buckets of gold in a crooked line along the shore. The skin of my brother’s right hand was ugly, the blisters red and weeping. Even though he could not have begun to guess at the science of it, he had gotten it in his head to add more of the formula to the water at the dam to make the gold shine brighter. The keg had unbalanced in his grip and the caustic liquid had run out over his hand.
Warm had shouted for me to keep the keg from spilling more of the formula into the water. I had been distracted with Charlie’s injury, which Warm had not seen, and too much had poured out. Warm was in the water on the far side of the river and had quickly swam to that shore to keep safe, his hand stiffly grasping the handle of his heavy bucket of gold. He stood over there calling to us worriedly, though I could not make out his words. Morris had not gone in at all, for the sake of his legs—I had thought vanity, but after twenty minutes in the river myself I understood, the itching was nearly unbearable—and was atop the dam with a long branch, stirring the water.
“Help me with my legs,” Charlie hissed.
His hand was shaking too badly to hold the soap, and I moved to help him, but a shout broke the air and I looked up just as Morris fell into the river with a great splash. He had made a misstep and fallen in the clean water upstream, but he did not come up, and I feared he had hit his head on a rock.
Charlie and I ran along our side of the river, paralleling Warm, although his calls for Morris were more frantic and his eyes were wild with fear. He reached the dam first, searching the dark water below. I did not know how deep it was, but Warm did not hesitate for long and leapt into the river.
“What should we do?” Charlie asked me. He had taken to following my lead occasionally, after I had asserted it in order to help Warm and Morris against the Mayfield trappers, but I did not know what to do. He was clutching his injured hand to his chest, and there was a light on his face not put there by the moon or our fire. I looked behind us and saw the gold shining in the river. Charlie looked, too, and took a single step in that direction as if compelled.
But Warm emerged from the water, his black hair plastered to his head, and called in a panic, “Do you see him? Has he come up anywhere?” and Charlie turned back, and although the situation was dire, I was secretly pleased that he had.
“No,” Charlie shouted to Warm.
“Perhaps he’s caught at the bottom of the dam,” I called. Warm nodded and vanished beneath the surface again. I started to wade in, although I was only stirring up the sediment worse for Warm, but soon it did not matter, as Warm resurfaced with Morris in his arms and struggled towards the shore. Morris was limp, his eyes closed, and he was not breathing.
Charlie ran to them as Warm stumbled and Morris slipped from his grasp to the sand. Warm cried Morris’s name once and fell beside him, panting and spent. I knelt by their sides, patting Morris’s face and shaking him, but he did not stir, even when Charlie shook him more violently.
Warm was trying to say something; he could not spare enough breath for it and we were too caught up in provoking Morris to rouse, and finally he flung his entire body between us and Morris. He pressed his mouth to Morris’s and Charlie sputtered a laugh in bewilderment, but Warm did not care, for he was trying to breathe life back into Morris, not kiss him. I stared as Warm repeated this until he was utterly out of breath and dropped back onto the sand, tears starting to leak from his eyes.
“You have to—” he gasped, staring up at me or the stars, I could not tell. “Please, I can’t go on—”
I felt badly that Morris might die so soon after learning that Warm reciprocated his affection, and Charlie having meanly wrecked their first try together. I touched Warm’s shoulder and took up his position next to Morris. Then I lost track of time there on the shore, breathing into Morris’s mint-scented mouth, thinking of all the people Charlie and I had not quite killed with a first bullet and who could have lived if either of us had thought of something more merciful than a second. And after enough such thoughts and time had passed that I grew dizzy, Morris finally twitched underneath me.
Warm said, low, “Get back now, Eli,” and I hurriedly pulled away. Warm rolled Morris onto his side and Morris vomited onto the sand. He coughed and huddled into himself, shivering; I told Charlie to fetch blankets, as I saw Warm was trembling, too.
“Hermann,” Morris whispered, reaching out blindly for him, and Warm took his hand, gripping it more tightly than he had his bucket of gold.
“What have you been scribbling down every night before you sleep?” Charlie said. The Commodore was dead, and we were our own men. We were riding south again, going farther than we ever had before.
“The truth of the matter,” I replied.
“The truth? What truth is that?”
“About Warm and Morris.”
Charlie tilted his head back and groaned. “Why would you do that?
“I thought Mother would like to know why we have left her all alone again, since there was no chance of her coming along.”
“So you’ve written everything down,” Charlie said.
“And you’re going to send it.”
“Yes. It isn’t as if she’ll tell anyone,” I said.
“Did you tell her where we were going?”
I looked at him. “I was going to include that in the letter.”
“Give it here, I want to see what you wrote,” Charlie said, and I dug in my saddlebags to find it. We stopped so Charlie could read it in the sunset.
“What, Charlie?” I turned and saw him shredding my writing and letting the pieces fall into the wagon rut we were following. He dismounted and ground the paper into the dirt. “I’ve been days writing that all down.”
“This is why the Commodore made me lead man,” Charlie said, mounting up again. “You’re too romantic, and you’ll get us all killed. I thought we agreed to spread it about that they died, so the formula would be lost and they could be—” He made a derisive sound in his throat, but I knew he did not mean it; he had come to be fond of the two men in his own way, although he had not gotten out of the unfortunate habit of interrupting. “Together.”
“I’m romantic. You agreed to come, too.” I scoffed at him and spurred my horse on, annoyed about the letter even though he was probably right. Dallas lay ahead, and I thought we might reach our friends’ house by midnight.