1. Myrtle Creek
It was still daylight out when Morris overheard his quarry speaking to the proprietor of the Myrtle Creek bunkhouse. Morris was taking care to keep his face hidden from the man named Hermann Kermit Warm, by attending to his horse. He had purchased a new mount before setting out from Oregon City in pursuit of Warm, and the creature was still wary of him, snorting and stamping in the dust until he had to cough into his kerchief.
The bunkhouse was slightly too far distant for Morris to make out the precise words that were exchanged, but coins soon followed. Warm's purse was very light, and had only gotten lighter as Morris had observed him over the past day or so, despite the hard work he had put in to help Myrtle Creek evolve into an approximation of a street, with newly painted storefronts pretending at respectability while their shelves lay bare. Nonetheless, he thought it sensible for Warm to secure a berth this early in the evening. Morris had seen friendships disintegrate over the last bunk situated above the mud, or the last blanket, and from what little he knew, Warm could ill afford such encounters with men who were utter strangers.
Morris finished with his horse and watched Warm go inside. There were no windows, so he did not concern himself with being noticed. He wrote in his journal for a while as more men came and went from the bunkhouse, but Warm did not reemerge in search of supper.
The thought of sleeping in the bunkhouse bothered Morris. He would ensure that he was not directly next to or above Warm, of course, but there were fleas to contend with in these places, as well as the odor of many men who had lacked recent opportunities to bathe.
He sighed. He could, unfortunately, count himself among that number.
Inside, Morris selected one of the remaining bunks and tipped himself backwards onto it with a cigar in one hand and a flask in the other, the latter of which received some jealous looks from the man on the bunk across from him, but he was not inclined to share. Warm was still awake, and making notes in his own journal; Morris glimpsed his letters and thought them not as nice as his own, but Warm was left-handed, and had to hold his wrist at a peculiar angle to keep the lines from smudging.
Warm looked up from time to time as other men came and took up their bunks, but he did not extend greetings to any of them, nor they to him. Two red-faced men came in together, loud and clearly drunk, and something passed like a cloud over Warm’s eyes, although the change of expression did not subtract in the least from his handsomeness. What sentiment it was, Morris could not tell for certain. He supposed a man alone might envy the sight of others’ camaraderie; or it could be simply be that Warm misliked where the men's dangerous inebriation might lead.
Morris lay down on the terribly uncomfortable bunk and tried not to itch, hoping the cigar smoke would guard against the fleas. It was certainly preventing him from smelling anything worse than his own unwashed scent. All around him, men were making their nightly prayers, some of their murmurs punctuated with a faint clink of rosary beads. Morris had rather expected that prospectors’ appeals might include more about gold, but they were only the usual swiftly mumbled verses he too had memorized as a child. He listened closely for the mellifluous sound of Warm’s voice, but the man did not add to the chorus of the faithful.
Eventually the susurrus of prayers subsided, and in its place rose the buzzing of snores. Morris thought he heard someone crying softly, not from Warm’s direction, for which he was strangely glad, although he expected the man would weep long before the Sisters brothers were finished with him. He put out his cigar, adjusted his posture so he would be able to see Warm's bunk at first light, and went to sleep.
2. Wolf Creek
Warm could not remember the last time he’d taken anything better than a ten cent bath, but Morris had taken one look at the water after a mere six uses, blanched, and said the dollar was worth it. He did not have a proper thermometer to measure the temperature of the freshly poured water, but steam rose from the surface as he sank into its welcoming heat and he sighed, grateful to Morris all over again. The gentleman had already paid seventy-five cents for Warm to have a lodging room and two meals, and he certainly did not have to indulge Warm in the additional extravagance.
Warm was not a fool; he had spent much of his life learning about people in pursuit of the principles that would guide his utopian society, and there were assuredly those who, if they had spent as much money as Morris had, would have particular expectations as to how those favors might be returned. Morris had not said any such thing, however, about repayment. His blue eyes never darkened with sinister intent, and the smile Warm had remarked upon at their first meeting remained as sincere and kind as ever.
He was in no danger from Morris.
Warm made a cup of his hands and sluiced water over his face; it almost felt cool on his suddenly heated skin. There was a faint metallic scent to it, most likely from the zinc-lined cistern in which it had been stored. His mind wandered briefly to the price of a brass bucket; it would be important to mix, carry, and store his formula in those, or similarly non-reactive containers, or the whole enterprise would be over the moment his elements combined.
The soap was not especially fine. Warm scrubbed himself with it languidly, though, observing the admixture of soap, dirt, and water, particularly the dissipation of the former two in the latter. He had not yet worked out how much to dilute his formula to preserve its effectiveness while minimizing its dangerous caustic quality. It was an odd thing to consider, how water such as the still bath he was sitting in could be so calm, admitting all manner of substance into near-solution, and yet so strongly react with other elements. He had once had an opportunity to witness a demonstration of the introduction of sodium into water, and found it quite impressive.
The same could be said, Warm mused, standing and clambering carefully out of the tub, of the reactions between humans. He had little difficulty predicting his encounters with most people; they found him strange, and tolerated his presence much as the water did the dirt, letting him drift through their lives alone and unaltered. But Warm could not have anticipated that a man such as Morris would have found him, and chosen to assist him, and perhaps, even befriend him.
Morris came out of his room when Warm was finished, and they passed each other in the narrow hall. He had a towel over his shoulder and a small wooden implement in his hand, covered in the same foam that was smeared about his lips. So he did not speak, only nodded in what Warm thought might be approval of his hygiene.
The window of Warm’s private room looked onto the front porch of the inn, but there were no stages scheduled to arrive or depart, as the Six-Bit House only served as a waypoint when the rivers ran too high for coaches to reach other stops. It was very quiet, then; the floorboards creaked above him, and once a child let out a shrill cry of frustration. Otherwise, lying on his soft and comfortable bed in the dark, Warm could only hear the sound of water splashing as Morris went about his bath a few doors away. He thought about it, briefly: Morris hurrying through his routine as the water grew colder, lingering in front of the glass to trim his beard, with the towel tied about his waist.
Warm swallowed. It would not do to think about Morris’s blue eyes reflected in the glass, or the scents of the perfumes and powders Morris had—somewhat jealously, to Warm’s amusement at the time—kept back for his own bath. He had let down his guard at the possibility of friendship, and his far too clever imagination had taken over.
They were friends, that was all.
He drew the blankets up to his face—they were clean, and thick enough that he could not see the light through them—and listened to Morris come out into the hall again, humming to himself. The humming neared the door next to Warm’s and lingered there; Morris was fiddling with the key in the lock.
Warm held his breath for a second and then dared to call out, “Good night, Morris.”
The humming stopped. Morris said softly through the door, “Good night, Hermann.”
Warm smiled. Morris had already precipitated a change in him; he was happy.
He went to sleep.
3. On the trail
“What do you suppose they say to each other?”
Morris looked across the dying fire at Warm. In their travels together, he had observed Warm often prepared for sleep by pulling the blankets up over his face, shutting out other people's lanterns and their various undignified noises. But recently—since Morris had bought him new blankets, as a matter of fact—he had not been doing so, and thus his face shone in the firelight, and there were embers glowing in the depths of his eyes.
“I beg your pardon?” Morris said, when he realized those eyes were gazing upon him, and Warm was waiting for a reply.
“The coyotes,” Warm said, raising a finger in the air, and Morris heard the eerie howling he had long ago learned to ignore in the course of his travels. “It’s a form of communication, is it not?”
“To communicate that there is fresh prey nearby, perhaps.” Morris looked around at the horses and wagons and weary but hard men and women with rifles, and shrugged. “Or to alert each other of danger.”
“Maybe they are greeting other members of their pack,” Warm said. “After spending all day in separate dens, they've come out to socialize.” He sounded far away, further than the scant feet that lay between them.
“And to plan how they might sneak into our camp and abscond with the remains of our dinner,” Morris said, forcing himself jovial to conceal that he was bothered by the wistful note in Warm's voice. There were many things Warm did or said that bothered him, not the least of which was the damned luminous smile that the man turned in his direction now.
“Ah, but how would they go about that?” Warm moved his hand in an arc that encompassed the fires and the people standing watch.
Morris considered it, turning the terrain around in his mind. “They are a pack,” he said. “Our guns are slow to reload, and if they all seized on one guard—say, that man leaning half-asleep on his rifle—he would not have the opportunity to fire a single shot. And then they would be through.”
“A grim scenario, for the man,” Warm said.
Morris's mouth twitched under his beard. “You are the one who brought it up.”
“There are pockets of us scattered around,” Warm said. “If a single coyote—they hunt alone, did you know that? Usually alone, unless the prey is too large for one—were to venture into one of these pockets and try to pick it, that would raise an outcry, and the other people around their fires would rush to attack.”
“While the pack crept in and stole what they pleased.”
“Yes, you have it,” Warm agreed, sparks of amusement flickering in his eyes.
“I did not know they hunted alone,” Morris said. He tried to make another jape out of it. “You have made a study of more than just the human animal.”
“Sometimes two will hunt as a mated pair,” Warm murmured. He turned his face upward and clasped his hands over his chest. It was a pose uncomfortably similar to how he might be laid out in a casket, and it was not the night wind that made Morris shiver. He watched Warm for a moment longer, but the man did not say another word.
Morris lay back in his own blankets and uneasily contemplated how he would deliver Warm to the Sisters brothers in Jacksonville, until the yelps and whines of the coyotes lulled him to sleep.
Warm went silent; he'd said everything he could think of to say to Morris, twisted around over his shoulder and trying to meet the man’s blue eyes in the darkness of his lodging room. There were some things that were easier said face to face—the accusations he had thrown at Morris, the questions of what, exactly, the Sisters brothers would do when they caught up—and some things he could no longer fathom saying at all. His heart ached worse than his head, where Morris had hit him and knocked him unconscious, prior to securing him to the chair in the middle of the room, too far to reach any means of egress.
He'd been so wrong.
He had always been in danger from Morris.
From that first casual invitation to eat together, to the purchase of his horse—Warm grimaced, remembering how delighted and grateful he'd been to have a generous benefactor, and more importantly, a friend—
—to their long meandering conversations on the trail, to every time he'd caught Morris stealing glances late of an evening. Or the sleepy unguarded way Morris smiled at him at dawn, before his brow furrowed, because the dandy still didn't like how rumpled his hair and clothes got after a night on the ground, though that made him only more pleasing to look at—
It hurt, knowing Morris had only used every such opportunity to preserve his trust, until such time as he could be handed over to be killed.
Warm wondered if it would be in the morning. He thought so, though it was no longer clear to him how Morris would take him from his lodging room to somewhere his cries wouldn't be heard. He supposed that originally, Morris would have hewn close to the truth. Perhaps he would have suggested Warm come out and meet his newly-arrived friends. And then—
Warm's breath shuddered in his chest.
He did not like the thought of watching Morris watching him die, but in a way it was worse to imagine Morris turning aside.
Whatever ingenuity Warm alone possessed, whatever he had thought he understood of humanity, did not lend itself to a solution. There was no hope of escape. He had put all his—trust, he would not allow himself to think of any other feeling now—in Morris, and he was going to pay for it.
He stared bleakly out the window at the slow interminable movement of the stars. Behind him, Morris's frantic breaths were calmer, as if Warm's resignation to his fate had lifted the weight of his guilt. Warm could hear the scratching of Morris's pen in his journal; it was a sound and routine he had once found comforting, and here too, despite the horrors that awaited, it compelled him gradually to sleep.
Warm woke to find himself freed from his bonds, and Morris passed out on the bed behind, exhaustion or grief underlining his closed eyes. The journal that had betrayed him was open under his hand, and Warm read the final words in the entry of the night before: The answer lies before me; it will be different ever after. I have elected to follow—
The last two words after that were blurred and illegible, as if Morris’s hand had smeared the ink as he slept. But his meaning and Warm’s subsequent freedom were plain, and a tremor of joy went through him. He reached out to Morris, wanting to thank him, but he did not have the opportunity; Morris thrashed awake at the touch of his hand.
They stared at each other in a moment of mutual panic. Warm thought that he should have checked for Morris’s gun, or his own, but he was hopeful, looking deeply into Morris’s blue eyes. They were clear.
Morris drew a quaking breath and steadied, using Warm’s hand to pull himself to his feet.
“Let’s go,” he said.
5. San Francisco
“Did you say something?” Warm asked.
Morris had made a small helpless sound as they stepped into their hotel room. He had thought himself trained out of such basic unthinking responses, but ever since he had decided to reject his mission and take up with Warm—with Warm’s cause—he kept finding it harder and harder to maintain a detached mien, to suppress a reflexive smile at the latest strange observation that emerged from Warm's uncanny mind.
“No,” Morris said. He looked at the sole bed that occupied the majority of the room, the thing that had provoked his involuntary noise; Warm had already tossed his dusty black hat onto one of the pillows and was peering out of the window at the city. “I—I shall sleep on the floor,” Morris said, and discovered he was crushing his own hat between his hands.
“What, now?” Warm asked, turning from the window, though he held the curtain aside so the clamor of the street—carriage wheels and horses’ hooves, the lilt of a dozen different tongues, the bells of auctioneers, an occasional gunshot—rose up to them through the dark. “Don’t you want to go into the city and see the people?” He tilted his head, and Morris swallowed; the light from the lamps made Warm’s curious eyes soft. “Or have yourself a shave and a bath?”
Morris ran his hand over his beard. “Do I look so disreputable?”
Warm gazed at him, and Morris worried for a moment that they were not as far past their detente as would allow him to make that sort of comment in jest or otherwise. But Warm only tugged wryly at his own mustache. “At least let’s go and buy some more tooth powder,” he said. “I know you have run out, and I won’t have you breathing the perfume of your last cigar in my face while I try to sleep.”
Morris opened his mouth and shut it again. Warm was deliberately teasing, perhaps, but Morris also thought he was attempting to put them back on equal footing after what had transpired in Jacksonville, by not allowing Morris to relinquish the bed in even more abnegation.
He looked at the bed again. It seemed—smaller.
It would be fine. They had shared close enough quarters before. Morris was not bothered by the prospect of sleeping next to Warm at all.
Morris was extremely bothered by actually lying next to Warm in the same bed.
They had gone out together to find a general store for the tooth powder. Warm had made all sorts of amused faces at the different flavors on offer, and commented that the fennel would make Morris smell rather like his mother. Morris had dropped that tin in a hurry.
And then Warm had wanted to investigate the remains of the Niantic, which had burned down just weeks before their arrival, in the massive conflagration that had claimed a good portion of the city. Morris was not inclined to see it, but even less inclined to let Warm go about alone. Warm was more watchful than he had been—that was Morris’s doing, and he could not quite stop himself from trying to atone further by paying for every item Warm examined for more than a second or two. But there were worse men than Morris in San Francisco, and for all Warm’s insights into the psychology of mankind, he did not think Warm could change their hearts—their minds—if they caught him in an alley unawares.
Warm had laughed, though, when he saw Morris kept dropping his hand to his pistol as they walked, and fluttered his hand to his heart like a girl. “I fear no danger with you at my side,” he had said, and Morris had flushed and averted his eyes. There was plenty to look at besides Warm, anyway.
They crossed through a foreign section populated by Chileans in colorful striped ponchos and shawls, and Morris had taken the opportunity to buy more cigars from the women, making Warm laugh again when he had to pantomime what he wanted.
They had not gone to the Niantic. Warm had asked around and discovered the common theory was that the fire had started by arson.
“I would like to see the ocean in daylight,” Warm had said as they climbed the steep hill back to their hotel. “From somewhere with a less obstructed view.” What they had been able to see of the bay had been very wide and very black, beyond the forest of dead ships. Warm had kicked a liquor bottle that had rolled out of a stack of its fellows, and made as if he wanted Morris to play a game with it, like they were children. But there had been many people pushing past them in the street, and Morris had been too on his guard to engage Warm properly.
“I would like that, too,” Morris had said. Warm had smiled at him, bright and pleased, and it had felt like a twist of rope was coming loose inside him.
The feeling only worsened as they made ready for bed. Morris had bought Warm a proper nightshirt somewhere along the line, and when Warm shed his jacket and shirt, laying them aside less neatly than Morris might, he had the realization that Warm wore it constantly, tucked into his pants, next to his—skin.
Morris had gotten under the blankets, hastily; he thought he might fray to pieces if he thought about Warm wearing nothing else besides. “Good night,” he had muttered, putting his back to Warm and telling himself it was so he could watch the door.
And then he had lain awake for what seemed like hours, clenching his hands into fists and desperately trying to keep any part of his body from contacting Warm’s. It had been one thing, when they had slept in the bunkhouse with other men snoring between them; another still to have the wall of Six-Bit House dividing their rooms. They had shared the warmth—he could not quite suppress a hysterical snort at the word—of campfires, but that had been out under the vastness of the sky, not hemmed into this—this—
Morris could not claim it was the size of the room that mattered, not when he had held Warm captive in a room several square feet smaller and a gulf had split between them. It was simply that he was—
Warm cried out in his sleep, and Morris instinctively turned over and reached to comfort him, touching his shoulder; it was as thin as he remembered from hauling Warm to the chair and tying him to it, but there was a wiry strength to the muscle. Warm startled awake, jerking away from Morris with his eyes going wide in his face, and for a single horrified breath Morris was not sure if Warm remembered they were friends again.
“I didn’t—I let you go,” Morris said, quickly. He was trembling, his hand still held out with his palm up to Warm to placate or entreat, or both. “They may be on our trail, but I have not posted any more letters, Hermann, I swear it, you have nothing more to fear from—”
But Warm shook his head. “I know,” he said, and took Morris’s hand in both of his own, and kissed it before letting it drop to the blankets. Morris stared at him, paralyzed; Warm was only settling back into his pillow. “I was dreaming of the city consumed by flames,” he said, drowsily. “Fires and earthquakes—it’s a wonder San Francisco has not also drowned under a tidal wave.” His eyelids were half-closed already, but a small laugh escaped his lips. “That is three of the four classic elements.”
Morris said, guessing at what would reassure Warm’s unconscious mind, “We shall leave as soon as our arrangements are finalized.” Warm nodded, and slid once more into sleep.
Morris exhaled in relief and gave into the temptation to pat Warm’s shoulder again, though he did not allow his hand to linger, nor did he stroke Warm’s hair so that it curled back from his face.
He rolled onto his back and stared at the invisible ceiling, listening to Warm’s quiet even breathing and the dull din of the city, and eventually he, too, slept.
At dawn, Morris woke to find himself entangled with Warm.
There was no other word for it; he had gotten his arm about Warm’s waist, and wedged his knee between Warm’s bare, hairy legs, and he was half-smothered in the pillow and the scent of Warm’s neck, and—
Morris was also—quite aroused.
He raised his head, a thrill of worry—or anticipation—running through him.
Warm was still, thankfully, fast asleep. His mouth was slightly open, though he was not snoring.
Morris cautiously maneuvered all of his parts back to his side of the bed; he had also taken up far more than his fair share of it in—in snaring poor Warm, and he made sure to leave more of a gap between them.
He had already done Warm a great injustice. He would not press the advantages of his money, or his size, in further pursuit of the vagaries of his heart. They were business partners, and his purchases for Warm were merely investments, not gifts. It would all be well, so long as Warm looked at him as he did, with fondness instead of fear.
Warm shifted under the blankets, stirring slowly. Morris made his breathing calm, and waited.
“First, the ocean,” Warm said, when he was fully awake. “Then we shall go back north, and find our river of light.” The morning sun coming in through the window made veils of his eyelashes and gilded his face, and Morris knew himself for a fool.
Still, they were friends, and if that was all Morris had to content himself with, then so be it.
+1. By the river
Warm had no idea what he was going to say when he found them. Words tumbled about in his head; Morris's pale face was all he could think of. Not the danger to himself, hurrying alone through the forested hillside in the eerie moonlight, not the gold he had left unguarded at their camp. Only Morris’s terrified eyes and his anguished cry, cut off when one of his captors had hit him over the head.
The trappers from Mayfield had tracked them up the river, and seized Morris when the opportunity presented itself. He had been standing at the top of the ridge on the far side of the river from their camp, smiling at Warm and dragging the tree he had cut down to push it over the edge, when they had appeared.
Warm had been in the water stacking rocks, to build up the pool from which they planned to pull that night. His gun and Morris’s were loaded, but they lay on the sand, or in their tent. He had raised his hands and stared helplessly at Morris lying limp on the ground above.
The trappers had given him an ultimatum: the formula, by dawn, or Morris died.
There had been some details of their camp downstream, and some ugly threats, unnecessary when Morris’s life was already at stake. Then they had disappeared into the trees, one big man carrying Morris over his shoulders like he would a deer.
Warm had—he was not going to think of it as panicked.
He had splashed across the river and frantically attempted to scramble up the side of the ridge, scraping his hands on the rough stone; the deer-path Morris had used to climb up was some ways upstream, and he had thought—
Warm had thought of nothing, save going after Morris as fast as humanly possible, but after he had tumbled off the rock face a second time, he sat on the shore opposite their camp and put his head in his hands. Sweat and water had dripped off of him and run down to merge with the river, as if he was pouring in a bucket of his formula.
The formula that was why everything had gone wrong.
Warm knew that now. He was picking his way through the trees, relying on the light of the moon and stars to navigate the trail. He had thought the formula would solve the problem of the prospector, but it had only ruined everything else. Morris, captured for a hostage, because he was Warm’s partner. Morris, made a deserter to his employer, the vicious Commodore, because he believed in Warm’s ideals and had become a true—friend—
Warm heard a noise ahead; it was a horse, or two of them, tethered in the trees. There was no fire still burning; it had gotten late, since he set out on his mad plan.
The Sisters brothers were not as light sleepers as Warm would have thought; he was able to get quite close before the darker man sat straight up and pointed a pistol at him.
“Eli,” that one said.
“What?” the one called Eli mumbled in his blankets, and then he too bolted upright.
Warm breathed hard through his mouth, looking at both of their guns aimed squarely at him, and said, “My name is Hermann Kermit Warm, and I need you to help me save John Morris.”
“What?” That was the darker one—Charlie, Warm thought. “We’re supposed to kill you, and by now, I’m pretty fucking sure I’d like to kill Morris, too.”
Warm nodded, but he thought it was a good sign that they had not shot him yet. He pointed to his jacket pocket. “If I may?” He was maintaining his composure with an effort; somewhere nearby, Morris was already waiting to die, and he did not know—
“Sure.” Charlie waved his gun at him and leaned back on his elbows.
“I cannot give you the formula,” Warm said. “I have—disposed of all I had of it, and I will never make any more.” He watched Charlie and Eli exchange glances. “It has brought me nothing but disaster.”
“And gold, I thought,” Eli said.
“Yes,” Warm agreed, and brought his hand out of his pocket to show them the nuggets of gold. They did not gleam in the dark, but it was still obvious what they were, and Charlie drew a sharp breath. “I will give you everything I have pulled, if you help me rescue Morris.”
Eli raised his eyebrows. “And let you live?”
Warm’s mouth twitched in a smile. “That would be kind of you.”
“How much have you pulled?” Charlie asked, suspiciously.
“More than a team of men could in a month,” Warm answered. The brothers looked at each other again. “Gentlemen, please, my friend is in danger, and we haven’t much time. The Mayfield trappers are camped not far from here, and—”
“Those fuckers again,” Charlie said, getting to his feet. “Wearing those stupid caps, I bet.”
“Yes.” Warm frowned at him; Eli was methodically checking his guns, but Charlie was only yawning hugely and scratching himself, far from the extraordinarily dangerous man Morris had said he was.
“Do you have a plan?” Eli asked.
“Then let’s go,” Eli said, and Warm shut his eyes and let out a shaky sigh of relief. He felt Eli pat him on the back, awkwardly, with a big hand. It would be all right, he told himself. They were not his friends, but they would not let Morris be hurt.
Charlie laughed. “I can’t wait to see the look on Morris’s fucking face when he sees us.”
From their hiding place in the trees near the Mayfield trappers’ camp, Warm could see Morris’s face. He was tied to a tree on the far side of the clearing, and two men were guarding him. They had stolen his pocket watch—Morris would still have it even while he was engaged in hard labor—and were tossing it back and forth to annoy him.
Morris looked magnificent, though, in the firelight, furiously raging. His hair was tangled and caught about his face the same way as it had the morning they had set out together as true partners. Warm rather thought that if Morris kept straining at the ropes he might actually have a chance at escaping, were it not for the guards. He remembered the muscles of Morris’s arms and legs pinning him to the hotel bed and grew inconveniently hot.
“How long is it supposed to take?” Eli whispered. Warm looked over his shoulder at the Sisters brothers; they were not watching Morris, but the river.
“I didn’t have the opportunity to experiment with the timing,” Warm muttered. “I poured it all in—the highest concentration I ever tried, but the river moves swiftly, and I don’t know how much it will dilute before it reaches us—”
Charlie rubbed a hand over his face. “Jesus, professor—”
“Soon,” Warm promised. “It—it does work, even when diluted. It should happen soon.” He turned his attention back to Morris; he had spent a reserve of energy, it seemed, and leaned forward panting in the ropes, ignoring the jibes of his captors. Warm’s throat had a lump in it; he longed to go across the camp and free Morris the way Morris had freed him, to return his trust and—affection, he could call it that, tenfold—
“Something’s happening,” Eli whispered reverently, and Warm looked towards the river and saw the gold beginning to glow.
“Holy shit,” Charlie muttered. In his eyes was a feverish glint, and Warm worried for a moment that he would rise from their hiding place and go towards the river. But Eli was pressing down on his brother’s shoulder, keeping him still.
“Okay,” Warm breathed. “Now, they should all want to go after it, and leave Morris alone for us to go in and get him.”
“They should,” Eli said. “But none of them are looking at the river.” It was true; the other three trappers were drinking heavily around their fire.
“Shit,” Warm said. He stared at them and the two guards trying to pull the boots off of Morris’s feet as he kicked in useless fury. He turned his back on the camp and squeezed his hands into fists. “Shit.” He looked at the Sisters brothers’ puzzled faces. “The glow—it fades, as the formula is diluted with more and more water. There isn’t much time.”
“They’re not moving,” Charlie observed. The gun was already in his hand; Warm had not seen him draw it. “We could—”
“They’ll kill him,” Warm insisted. His voice cracked. “Stay here. When they come towards the river, free Morris.”
“Warm, what—” Eli started, but Warm was already getting to his feet and going into the clearing.
They all saw him in the same instant.
Morris cried out in horror, “Hermann, no!” and his resolve almost broke. One of the guards hit Morris in the stomach, making him retch, though Warm was certain his own name was caught up in his sobbing gasps for air.
The big man by the fire trained his gun on Warm; he held his hands out so they would see him unarmed.
“I have brought you the formula,” Warm said, and pointed to the river.
“What the fuck?”
“I don’t have the time to explain the science behind it.” Warm did not need to affect much impatience. “I poured the formula in the river upstream, and now it’s lighting up all the gold.” He waved towards the river. “Go on and get it.”
“It’s a trick,” one of the other trappers said. He had a beaver pelt cap on, although the tail had not been tanned well.
“It’s what everyone has been after me for,” Warm said. “Come down to the water, you’ll see for yourself.”
The big man got up and grabbed Warm’s arm, hauling him along with the trappers to the shore. They all looked out together into the water. The gold was shining beautifully from the bottom, and Warm closed his eyes against it, thinking that it did not matter; the only thing that mattered was Morris.
“It’s real,” the beaver-cap trapper said. He’d stuck his hand into the river and snatched up the closest chunk. “It’s—” His face changed, and he splashed out into the river with most of his fellows jumping in after him.
Warm could have laughed, except the big man was still standing there with a gun pointed at his face.
“You sit, and you wait,” he said, and pushed Warm down onto a boulder. “When we’ve all had a turn, then we’ll see what’s what.”
Warm resisted the urge to turn and look for Morris; he hoped the Sisters had cut him free already. The trappers were jubilantly sloshing about in the river, tussling over the larger nuggets and occasionally falling into the water completely; they were very drunk, and it was not easy to keep their feet under them. The big man rocked back and forth on his own feet; he was apparently regretting having stayed back.
Eventually Warm sighed and made as if he was rubbing his face with his hands in exhaustion. He peered between his fingers back towards the camp and his heart leapt: Morris was no longer tied to the tree.
It was then that the first exclamation of confusion and pain came from the water. Warm had lost track of how long the trappers had been immersed, but they were starting to shout to each other and struggle back towards the safety of land. He shuddered. He and Morris had been careful not to expose themselves for too long. They had worn all their clothing whenever they went in, and applied grease to their skin, and still their legs burned and itched days after their first attempts.
Of course, Warm had not warned the trappers to take any such precautions.
“What have you done?” the big man said, angry and frightened, as the first of his companions made their way onto the shore, screaming as he hit the sand; his arms were visibly red and blistering. Two more followed, helping the man in the beaver cap. They were able to get him all the way to the campfire, and the big man’s gaze followed them, going past to the empty ropes hanging about the tree where Morris had been tied.
“What have you done?” the big man snarled again, and Warm looked up into the hollow black muzzle of his gun.
Warm did not think he wanted an answer, but he said, “I had to—”
The man fired, or at least Warm thought he did; there was a tremendous thunderclap and a bright white flash, and another in rapid succession. Then he was lying on the ground beside the boulder, and the big man was dead next to him with the back of his head blown off, and he saw the Sisters brothers striding through the trappers’ camp calmly dispatching every single one of the remaining men, even the ones who tried to shoot back.
Warm tried to look for Morris, but there was blood in his eyes. He closed them.
But Morris was there, smelling of sweat and cigar smoke and more blood; was falling to his knees beside him, his hands shaking violently as he tried to lift Warm from the sand. His voice was muffled. Warm could not tell if it was because his ears were ringing or because Morris was crying. “Hermann, please God, Hermann—”
Warm’s head hurt, but Morris was holding onto him, and from the strength of his grasp it seemed unlikely that Morris would ever let him go. He opened his eyes, and searched out Morris’s hand with his own, meaning to bring it to his lips as he had in San Francisco, but Morris clutched it to his chest, so that Warm felt his heart beating wildly.
“Is he dead?”
That was Eli, coming over with Charlie behind him. Charlie had plucked one of the furry caps from the Mayfield trappers and was wearing it.
Morris drew a gun from beneath Warm’s head—he had a different holster strapped to his hip—and pointed it at the Sisters. “No,” he said. His voice was choked. “And you shall not have him.”
“Hey, no, no,” Charlie said. He did not have his own pistol out, and neither did Eli. “Over your dead body.” He smirked.
Warm touched the side of his head, where the bullet had grazed him. His fingers came away bloody, and Morris made an unhappy face. He looked up at the Sisters brothers. “Thank you,” he said. He thought about it for a moment, and added, “If you’re very careful, you might be able to pull some more before the formula is completely washed away.”
Eli winced. “No thanks.” He toed the big man’s corpse in the side, and then leaned down to push it so it rolled down the gradual slope towards the river. “Nice shooting, Morris,” he said, and went after the items that dropped from the trapper’s pockets as it fell.
“We’ll just wait until you’re well enough to take us back to your camp and pay us,” Charlie said, and sauntered after his brother, which left Warm and Morris alone together on the shore.
“You are all right?” Morris asked. He sounded normal again, his accent no longer heightened with emotion, and in fact slightly guarded against it. “There is some wine—it will help you recover your spirits.” He shifted his weight underneath Warm to move.
“Don’t go,” Warm said. His hand was still pressed against Morris’s chest, and he was loathe to stop feeling its rise and fall with every breath.
And he was right; he had been in terrible danger from Morris all along.
“Why did you do it?” Morris asked. His voice was low, and his blue eyes were darkening despite the oncoming dawn, and there was nothing sinister about them whatsoever.
Warm made an effort to push himself up. Morris helped, confusion creasing his brow, until Warm was sitting upright, if leaning somewhat into Morris’s embrace. He smiled; his own breathing was quickening to match.
“I had to follow my heart,” Warm said, and Morris kissed him.
Some time later, Eli came by and threw a pile of blankets at them, saying he and Charlie were going back to sleep and they would sort the rest out after lunch. Morris sat up and went about arranging the blankets on the sand to be more comfortable, and then he stopped and looked at Warm. His face was open; he was smiling.
“I thought coyotes were supposed to be clever,” Morris said. Warm laughed, and drew him back down to the blankets.