Tom, my twin brother, handed Autumn the 1865 Uberti Schofield revolver. We sat outside, overlooking the Ozark Mountains, and the black steel shimmered underneath the candlelight as she gripped the dark wooden handle, turned it over, and rubbed her fingers down the cold barrel. I loathed having to steal it from Tom. Our father, before he had committed suicide, had always said the gun was cursed, and although I had never shared his fear of the revolver, I couldn't escape the hard fact that every member of my family who had owned it died violently before the age of forty-five. While I blamed our family's tendency toward violence, seeking fortune through crime or valor through war, my father had been correct about one thing: that dull, black weapon had been the only common thread linking these men together besides their blood. That's why I had returned to my childhood home, to dispose of the gun once and for all. With Autumn pregnant with our first child, I did not want to sustain the tradition of fatherless sons. But I couldn't allow Tom to keep it either. He had already tried to kill himself with it once.
"Jesse James gave that gun to our great-great-great grandfather," Tom said, "right after they had robbed the Clay County Savings Bank." Since he had shot himself through his left cheek, Tom's voice sounded muffled, like his words emerged from underwater.
"You're kidding me," Autumn said. "The Jesse James?"
This was the first time Autumn had met Tom. A Justice of the Peace had married us only six months before, right after we had learned of the pregnancy. She had begged to meet him, my only living relative, and I agreed. She had given me the perfect cover to come back home.
"The one and only. Back on February 13, 1866, Jesse, Frank, our granddaddy, and nine others pulled off the first daylight heist of any bank in the United States."
"Has it ever been used?" she asked as she sighted some anonymous target in the dark distance. Her elbows rested on her round, pregnant belly, and it occurred to me that our unborn son steadied the revolver that my father had once shoved into his mouth and pulled the trigger. Her fingers interlocked, loose and unsteady. I could tell this was the first time she had ever held a gun. If she fired, she would've dropped it.
"It's killed three people. Nearly four."
"Is it unloaded?" she asked. Tom nodded, and Autumn pulled the trigger. The empty cylinder revolved, and the hammer clicked.
"The first was a seventeen-year-old kid," Tom continued. "Jesse shot him above the right eye as they escaped from town." Tom made a gun with his index finger and thumb, pointed to his forehead, and acted like he blew his brains out.
"That's awful," Autumn said.
Tom shrugged, slurped to keep from drooling. Most of the nerve endings had been damaged from the exit wound. His cheek had grown back as a mess of scar tissue, pulling his lips up and back, like he was perpetually grinning, but only on the left side of his face.
"So who were the rest?" Autumn asked.
"It doesn't matter who the rest were," I said. I grabbed the gun from Autumn. The weight felt like it belonged in my hand. "They're all dead now anyways."
Ever since Tom had tried to kill himself, I had been imagining conversations with people. Autumn, friends, complete strangers, it didn't matter. At first they had been banal advice about trivial issues like which shirt to wear, the speed of my driving. But lately they had become more malignant. That night, as we lay in bed, and I rested my ear against Autumn's stomach:
—Do you ever think about dying? my unborn son asked.
—Of course. Everyone does.
—How do you see yourself going?
—Drowning in a pool of blood.
I had never given much credence to the stories of twins who could feel the pain of their sibling even if separated by thousands of miles, like they shared a connection imperceptible to everyone else but nonetheless tangible and real. Many said this ability caused twins to be more empathetic. I had never felt that way. I had never shared a close bond with Tom. We had been too different. At times he didn't even feel like my brother at all. But once Tom had stuck Jesse's gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, a change had occurred. I couldn't deny that. Sometimes I could even feel my cheek ache.
Autumn caressed my scalp with her fingertips, and the gentle scraping of her fingernails soothed me. Her ability to calm me had been why I had fallen in love with her. When I had first moved away from the farm ten years ago to study art, I hadn't been able to sleep. I had had nightmares about being on a battlefield in a jungle, trapped and surrounded by faceless men. They spoke in whispers, and I could hear their boots crunch against foliage as they came closer. And before I woke each morning, I could feel a calloused hand grip my throat. The dreams seemed like they had belonged to someone else. I had never been a soldier. But once I had met Autumn, her touch alone would allow me to sleep without dreaming, and, for the first time away from home, I could rest. But then Tom had shot himself, and the voices started. The gun itself caused them. It was the only explanation that made any sense.
"Staying in your old room is turning me on," Autumn said. "It's like I'm seducing a much younger man." Her teeth dug into her bottom lip, and the pink glow in her cheeks deepened into a crimson.
"I don't want Tom to hear us."
"We're adults, Howard. We can have sex if we want to."
"It just wouldn't be right."
"But we haven't made love in weeks."
"I said no, Autumn."
I rubbed her bare stomach and felt the baby kick, like he knew I was there, like he knew I had never wanted kids. Each time I came close, the baby became restless, kicking and turning inside the womb, like my very presence made him uncomfortable. Autumn put up with it without complaint, but she always grimaced, shut her eyes tightly and pursed her full lips when it became unbearable. But I never moved. I enjoyed it when he squirmed.
"What do you think about naming him Jesse?" Autumn asked.
"I'd rather name him after your father."
"But Jesse just sounds—I don't know—right."
She grabbed the picture on the nightstand and placed it between her and me, blocking her face. It was of me and my father, a profile shot as he showed me how to clean a revolver. I had been twelve years old, and my mother had snapped it right after I had shot Jesse's revolver for the first time. The handle had seemed like it had been carved to fit my hand, and the ease in which the trigger squeezed made it so easy to hit the paper target of a person pointing a gun back at me. It had been the first time I had felt like my father's son, like he had been proud of me. The smell of gunpowder and Hoppes oil remind me of that morning and how I had felt when he showed me how simple it was to kill a man.
"Why don't you ever talk about him?"
"What do you want to know?"
—Are you afraid that you're like him?
Autumn placed the picture back on the nightstand and took my cheeks in her hands. She smelled like soap, and her voice soothed me, made me tired.
"What was he like?"
"The doctors said he was schizophrenic."
A gunshot echoed against the mountains, made the windows shake, and I was certain Tom had succeeded in killing himself this time. Autumn screamed, sat up in bed, and protected her belly with her arms.
"What was that?"
I walked to the window, and below us, underneath a lamppost, stood Tom, revolver in hand, shooting off into the distance. He shot another round, and a puff of smoke curled up from the barrel and dissipated.
"It's just Tom. Go to sleep."
Once Autumn had fallen asleep and I could no longer hear Tom downstairs, I crept into my father's old office at the back of the house. All of my father's most important possessions had been stored in that room, including Jesse's revolver. Tom had honored my father's wishes of keeping the family home intact after he had died, had refused to let me take one memento with me when I had moved away, so I knew simply asking for the gun would be out of the question. I had to take it from the gun safe and hide it until we left on Sunday.
The room remained as it had the last time I had stepped foot in it nearly ten years before. A lit, glassed-in bookcase held my father's war memorabilia as if on display at a museum. His dress blues. A Vietnamese flag. His purple heart. During the Tet Offensive, my father had been shot in the neck. No one had expected him to live, at least, that's how he had explained it to Tom and me when we were boys. He had remembered the sound most of all, a resounding pop followed by a high-pitched hum, like the rockets on the Fourth of July. When he had stabilized back at camp, the doctors called him a walking miracle. That had been about the same time he started hearing voices other than his own. He said they had followed him from the battlefield.
The gun safe, six-feet tall with a combination lock and a handle like a sailboat's wheel, stood behind my father's desk. I tried opening it, but, of course, it was locked. The combination I had never known, and I dialed in all the dates I could think of—my father's birthday, mine and Tom's, the date of Jesse James's death—but none worked. I hoped Tom had written it down and put it in the desk for safekeeping, so I searched through the many drawers. Mostly I found Tom's bank statements, credit card receipts, and copies of tax returns. Stacked inside the last drawer, however, were old, yellowed documents that smelled like dust and mold. Their edges had frayed and were smudged a deep brown and looked like they would crumble if I touched them. I eased my fingertips underneath the corner and lifted the top one and placed it on top of the desk. It was a note written in black ink. The curved loops of the handwriting tilted forward and ran together, making the message almost illegible. I set it aside and pulled out the second sheet, a hand-drawn map of Oklahoma. The southwest corner had been circled, and written inside it said, "Devil's Canyon." The last document was a modern map with dozens of X's marked in red ink throughout the same region of Oklahoma.
I studied the note and tried to decipher what it said. The best transcription I could come up with read: "The hereby signed declare that the gold here buried belongs to each and every one of the undersigners and cannot be dug up without the others present unless they be dead." Nine names had been signed at the bottom of the page. They looked like scratches, but I couldn't help but think that one of them had to be the signature of Jesse James.
When I awoke the next morning, Autumn was already gone. I dressed and went downstairs and saw her out by the pond, wrapped in a blanket and standing next to Tom. The morning sun shined over the mountains to the east, and I had to shield my eyes as I stepped out into the yard. Spring had arrived without me noticing it. Magnolias and redbuds bloomed white and pink, and despite the chill that remained in the air, migratory geese had returned to the mirror-like pond.
"I can't," she said as I approached.
Tom was showing Autumn how to discharge the cylinder, reload it, and cock it to be fired. Their breaths puffed like smoke signals as Tom placed a round in each chamber.
"You can't what?" I asked.
In the sunlight, Tom's scar looked less menacing, resembled ground beef, or brain tissue.
"Tom wants me to shoot."
"You'll like it. I promise," Tom said.
"I'm scared, though."
"Scared of what?" I asked.
—I don't want to end up like you.
—What am I like?
"There's nothing to be scared of," Tom said as he clicked the cylinder shut. "Watch."
Tom raised the revolver and aimed up into the sky and pulled the trigger. Autumn's shoulder's jerked up around her ears, and I could see the muscles tighten in her neck and her fingers tremble. The geese honked and took flight and circled overhead.
"This can't be good for the baby," Autumn said.
Tom tried to hand her the revolver with hands blackened by gunshot residue, but she refused to take it, shook her head, and wrapped the blanket tighter around her body.
"What are you scared of?" I asked.
—What am I like, Autumn?
—You're just like your father.
"I'm scared I might hurt one of you. Or myself. Or the baby."
"Jesus, Autumn. That's why you point the damn thing away from you."
"I don't want to, okay?"
I grabbed the gun from Tom and held the revolver out toward her. "Take the gun." She had been the one who had begged to come here, not me. She had wanted to get to know my family. She had wanted to know why I had left my family. This was the only way.
"I said no, Howard."
"It's okay, Howard. If she doesn't want to, she doesn't want to," Tom said.
"Shut up, Tom. Take the gun."
"Goddamnit, no, Howard."
I slipped my finger underneath the trigger guard and felt like Jesse must have when he had shot that seventeen-year-old kid, like I had the responsibility of choosing who was allowed to live and who must die. I grabbed Autumn and pressed her against my chest so that I could feel our son between us and steadied my arm on her shoulder and shot. "Take the gun." I shot again. "Take the gun." I shot again. "Take the gun, Autumn." And again until the cylinder clicked empty.
We ate dinner in silence that night. Autumn had locked herself up in my old room and had refused to come down all day despite my many apologies about what had happened that morning until the hunger pains had become too much to bear. She had tried to go back up to the room once she had grabbed a plate, but Tom had convinced her to stay, had told her something I hadn't been allowed to hear.
We had rabbit and radishes covered in vinegar. It reminded me of the many meals we had around this table growing up. The meat was stringy, and every other bite I had to spit out buckshot. Autumn pushed the meat around with her fork as though she was trying to muster the courage to take a bite.
—How did you live like this?
—It wasn't so bad. At times I even miss it.
She took a bite of rabbit and chewed, slowly at first, then faster. She swallowed and sawed off another piece as though she coveted it.
—Seems like you like it here, too.
—It has its charms.
"What's with the maps in Dad's office?" I asked Tom.
"You went into Dad's office?" Underneath the candlelight, Tom's scar looked even more ominous. The shadows deeper, darker, more pronounced, like the flesh was clay melting off his face. "What were you looking for?"
"What are you planning, Tom?"
—He's lying to you.
"What is Devil's Canyon?"
Tom took a bite of radish and tilted his head back so he wouldn't drool. "Dad thought Jesse had buried some gold there."
"And you're going to go dig it up."
"There's nothing to dig up. Dad went crazy. You know that."
—He's going to keep it for himself. Just like your father's revolver, Howard.
"Then why do you have the maps?"
"Because they were Dad's."
Autumn placed her hand on top of mine. "Please stop."
I wanted to reach out and strangle her. It would've been so easy.
That night, as Autumn and I lay in bed, I drew the revolver in my sketchpad. Tiny bits of black flaked against the paper and sprayed like a rain shower and turned my fingertips a smoky gray as I turned my pencil to the side and scraped the tip back and forth in slow, precise movements, giving the curved handle, the hammer, the six-shot cylinder, and the barrel depth. It looked exactly like Jesse's Uberti Schofield locked up somewhere inside the house.
"Let's go home," Autumn said. "Right now. We can just get in the car and leave."
I brushed the extra graphite from the page, and when I did, I saw angled lines spiraling inward where the handle met the trigger guard. They looked like a fingerprint, like a gunman's trigger finger had, moments before, rested there. I didn't remember drawing that.
—Then find the revolver and finish this.
I had one more night to break into the gun safe. Just like the night before, I waited until Autumn and Tom fell asleep before slipping out of bed. But once I got downstairs, I noticed a light shining from the office. Behind the desk sat Tom, studying Dad's old maps. He didn't look up as I stood in the doorway as if he didn't hear me. He just traced his fingers up and down the modern map and scanned an open book next to him. But when I turned to go back to bed and wait, he spoke.
"Come here. I want to show you something." He pointed to a picture of a limestone bluff. In the middle of it, someone had carved a crude cross. "Dad thought this was a marker Jesse used to find where he buried his gold."
"How do you remember all of this?"
"It's been years since I've looked at these. Do you remember Dad telling us about Jesse's biggest train robbery?"
"Dad went crazy."
"He did. Big time. But he knew his history." Tom picked at his scar and scratched off a flake of dead skin. "Jesse made off with $40,000 outside of Glendale and went on the run. The law caught up with them in Oklahoma, so they buried all of it here." Tom tapped the picture of the limestone bluff. "Today it'd be worth millions."
—Dad would want us to dig it up.
—We could split it fifty-fifty.
"Dad narrowed it down to five likely spots," Tom said. "But he never got a chance to go look."
"He blew his brains out."
"You remind me a lot of him, you know."
"You're the one that tried to kill yourself."
"But you were always a better shot." Tom pointed to his cheek. "I'm going to bed. Knock yourself out on the safe."
The next morning, as Autumn and I carried our luggage to our car, we found Tom sitting at the back patio table and nursing a cup of steaming coffee. Next to him lay the revolver. The cylinder sat sideways to Autumn and I, so I couldn't tell if it was loaded or not. Knowing Tom, though, made me believe live .45 caliber rounds waited to be shot. He reasoned guns were there for protection, and if he needed it, there wasn't time to load. I couldn't say that I blamed him.
"Taking off already?" he asked.
"I got to get back for a doctor's appointment. We'll have to do this again sometime," Autumn lied. We would never return. Autumn had made that clear as we had packed. She had asked to come so she could learn about my family, why I never spoke of them, before our son was born. And just as I had ten years before, once she had learned all that she needed to, she wanted nothing more than to be hundreds of miles away.
"That's a shame." Tom stood and holstered the revolver by his belt. "There was one more thing I wanted to show you before you took off."
"We really need to be going," Autumn said.
"It'll only take a few minutes."
Autumn looked to me for backup, to tell my brother no.
—This is our chance to escape.
—Maybe for you.
"We have to leave right after," I said. Since he refused to give me the revolver, I hoped I might be able to take it from him, by force if necessary.
Tom clasped his hands together, and the pop made Autumn jump. "It's settled then." He grabbed Autumn's bag and placed it in the trunk and got in the back seat.
"Where is he taking us?"
I told her I didn't know even though I had a good idea.
Tom directed me off-road past the pond, past the field of magnolias and redbuds, the honking geese, and the fields of corn. The mountains seemed to grow larger as we approached. Hawthornes and maples and hickories shined an emerald green under the crisp, morning light, and blue smoke from a campfire billowed through the canopy.
Tom told me to stop, we got out, and Tom pointed to a trail snaking up onto the mountainside. The incline wasn't too steep, but I was worried Autumn wouldn't be able to make it. I couldn't take the risk of her falling and hurting our child, so I grabbed her arm, and we followed Tom and entered the tree line. Cardinals and mockingbirds chirped and little green and white herons hopped ahead of us on the trail and the leaves and soil smelled wet from a pre-dawn spring shower. Beaded raindrops reflected the sunlight filtering in through the canopy and casted tiny rainbows. Walking through those woods reminded me of when Tom and I had hiked this trail together as kids playing cowboys and Indians. We had taken turns being Jesse James and chased each other around with pellet guns. We had killed each other countless times, and I still had a scar in my neck from one of Tom's nastier shots. Up over the next hill, I knew there was a ravine, and at the bottom we would find the Buffalo River protected on the opposite side by a large bluff and a sandbar.
"Do you still want to know who else this gun has killed?" Tom asked Autumn.
She looked to me, her face long and drooping, mouth open, eyes wide. She looked sleep deprived and afraid. I nodded to reassure her. She needed to hear this.
"You know about the kid Jesse shot," Tom said. "The next died in 1917. Our great-grandfather shot a German sympathizer in the stomach. It took him eight hours to die."
The last time we had trekked down here we had been fourteen years old. Our mother had sent us out to look for our father who had been missing for two weeks. When he had left, he told us he was going elk hunting. My mother hadn't wanted him to go. He had been talking to himself, hadn't been sleeping, rambling nonsense. But he went anyway. Most trips Dad would be gone for two or three days, sometimes a week. But once the second had come and passed, Mom hadn't been able to wait any longer. Tom and I had found him on the bank of the river, a hole the size of a baseball where the top of his head used to be.
"And the last was our father."
We walked into the clearing at the edge of the green-tinted Buffalo River. A canoe waited for us there like Tom had been planning this before we had arrived two days before.
"Get in," he said.
"I'm not getting in there." Autumn protected her stomach and inched away from both of us, back toward the trail.
"We're just going across the river," Tom said. "Five minutes, and I'll bring you right back." He scratched his scar.
"Howard, let's go back, please."
—He's going to kill us.
—We're going to die.
—Shut up. Shut up.
"Get in the canoe," I said. I had to find a way to get Tom to remove the revolver from its holster so I could take it from him. I had to make the voices stop. For my son, I had to make the voices stop.
"Please, Howard. Let's just go home."
I grabbed Autumn by the wrist and forced her into the canoe. Later, she would understand that I was doing this for us, for her, for our unborn son. I would make her understand if I had to.
We paddled to the beach on the other side of the river. The breeze picked up and carried hundreds of dandelions through the ravine. As they flew by, some soaring high above us, others splashing into the calm river, getting stuck in Autumn's long, silky hair, a strong déjà-vu came over me, like I knew each white speck by name.
We hit ground, and Tom and I pulled the canoe onto the sandbar.
"This is where he done it," Tom said. "And this is where I came, too." Tom pulled out the revolver, and I stepped in front of my child. "I had been thinking a lot about Dad then. Being alone out here, the only thing I could do was think, and I started to hear voices. I couldn't make them stop. After awhile I couldn't take it anymore, so I stuck the gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger." The revolver glinted under the sunlight as Tom cocked the hammer and jammed it into his mouth and pulled the trigger. Autumn screamed, and a covey of startled quail burst from some brush and flew away, but the cylinder clicked empty. Tom pulled the revolver out of his mouth. "Dad was right. This gun is cursed, and I think we should bury it."
I was so relieved I burst out laughing.
—Why are you laughing?
—Why are you not?
Tom and I got down on our hands and knees and scooped wet sand with our bare hands, and I couldn't stop laughing. I didn't even hear Autumn as she walked back to the canoe and paddled away. I didn't care. We lay the revolver into the hole, and Tom dragged the sand over Jesse's gun with his boot. We stared down at our work. It was buried. The curse was buried.
On the sand at the edge of the water, sparkling in the morning sun, lay Autumn's wedding ring.
—You should leave him.
—Why don't you?
—I don't have that kind of courage.
We had to swim back, and when we made it out of the woods, the car was gone. I figured I would stay with Tom awhile, and later I would take a bus back home and patch things up with Autumn and raise our son together. It didn't even matter that the voices were still there. With our curse buried in the dirt, nothing could go wrong.