The Sisters Brothers

by Patrick deWitt
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The Sisters Brothers Summary

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt is a 2011 novel about two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who work as hired killers for the Commodore, a crime boss in Oregon City, Oregon, around the time of the California gold rush.

  • For their next job for the Commodore, Eli and Charlie are to track down and kill a gold prospector in San Francisco named Hermann Kermit Warm.
  • The brothers learn that Warm has developed a chemical method for finding gold in rivers. They are to find out this method and then kill Warm, but instead they decide to join him.
  • Warm dies while using the toxic chemical, and Charlie loses his hand. Eli later kills the Commodore, and the brothers return home.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2816

Patrick DeWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers tells the story of two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who work as hired killers for The Commodore, a crime boss in Oregon City, Oregon, around the time of the California gold rush. At the beginning of the novel Charlie and Eli have just finished a job, one in which Eli lost his trusted horse. Eli waits outside as Charlie goes into the Commodore’s mansion for news of their next job. Eli’s new horse is named Tub; he received it as partial payment for their most recent killing.

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Charlie exits the Commodore’s and mounts the horse he took in the last job, Nimble, which is stronger and faster than Tub. They leave the Commodore’s and go to a saloon. Sitting down with a bottle of whisky, Charlie tells Eli that he is to be the lead man on the next job. Eli doesn’t like this plan, but he goes along with it anyway. For their next job for the Commodore, Eli and Charlie are to track down and kill a gold prospector in San Francisco named Hermann Kermit Warm. The brothers are to meet the Commodore’s scout, Morris, in San Francisco. Morris will point out Warm, and the brothers will do their bloody work.

The brothers ride out for San Francisco the next morning. They come upon a man walking a horse and weeping profusely. Eli goes to him and asks him what is wrong. The man doesn’t respond but nevertheless follows Eli back to their camp. Charlie and Eli both ask the man what is the matter; the man replies that they’re "all gone." They feed the weeping man and he goes on his way.

That night Charlie and Eli make camp and go to sleep. In the morning, as he puts on his boots, Eli feels a sharp pain and realizes he has been bitten by a spider. Immediately he begins to feel feverish and weak. Eli says is able to ride, so they mount their horses and move on. A few hours later Charlie tells Eli that his head has swollen to remarkable proportions, likely from the bite. They decide to stop and find a doctor. They arrive at an encampment and solicit a man claiming to be a tooth doctor. The dentist, Watts, drains the blood from Eli’s swollen face and extracts two teeth. Before they leave, Watts gives Eli a toothbrush and toothpaste and tells him to use them everyday.

They move onward, and near daybreak they come upon an old woman in a cabin. Charlie thinks they should stop there for the night, but Eli has premonitions that the place may not be safe. Charlie overrules Eli’s suspicions, however, and they decide to stay with the old woman. When they awake, they are alone, but the woman has left a string of beads hanging across the doorway. According to Charlie, this is a gypsy’s curse which will haunt them if they pass beneath the beads. Charlie suggests exiting through the window, but Eli, who’s heavier than his brother, cannot fit. Charlie leaves and promises to return with tools to cut around the window so Eli can fit out. While Charlie is gone, Eli sees a bear approaching the tree where Tub is tied. Eli tries to shoot the bear from inside the house but cannot get a good shot. The bear starts to attack Tub, so Eli leaves the house through the doorway and kills the bear, but returns inside before Charlie gets back. Tub’s only lasting injury from the bear attack is a swollen, dead-looking eye.

Riding onward, the brothers come across a group of murdered prospectors. They eventually arrive at another town with a trading post. The brothers are outfitted by a haberdasher and Eli notes how running such a shop might be a fulfilling way to make a living were he to ever decide against hired killing. At the hotel, Eli shows Charlie his toothbrush, but Charlie is not impressed. Charlie goes out to the saloon, but Eli does not join him.

The next morning, Charlie has a bad hangover, so they decide to stay in town another day. With nothing to do, Eli befriends the woman who works in the hotel. He goes into her room and they talk about the problems of family and their dreams for the future. Charlie, Eli, and Eli’s new friend go out to watch a duel taking place in town, between a lawyer and a violent ranch hand. The lawyer is well-dressed and gentlemanly but is shot down easily. The brothers leave the hotel the next day, and Eli leaves some money for the woman working at the hotel beneath his pillow.

Riding out, they come upon a riderless horse. The horse appears to be strong and healthy, and so Eli decides he will be a suitable replacement for Tub.

The brothers arrive in a town called Jacksonville. Charlie is in the midst of chastizing Eli for his weight, telling him that the woman at the hotel was not interested sexually because she wasn’t physically attracted to him. Eli vows to eat only healthy meals henceforth, and at the restaurant in town orders a moderate portion of beef with a large portion of steamed vegetables.

The next morning Charlie is hungover again, and Eli goes out to sell Tub so he can take on the horse he found. When he gets to the horse trader, however, he has a change of heart and decides to sell the horse he found and keep Tub after all.

They ride out from town and soon come upon an abandoned camp inhabited by a starving young boy. They feed the boy, and the boy says that he will go with them to California. Eli and Charlie try to dissuade him, but the boy is adamant. They ride away swiftly, leaving the boy in their dust.

The brothers enter California and, crossing a river, come upon the camp of a lone prospector. As Eli investigates, the prospector sneaks up on Eli from behind and points his gun at him. The prospector asks whether Eli is after a red-haired she-bear, upon which a man named Mayfield has put a bounty of a hundred dollars. Charlie comes out from the woods and shoots the prospector in the head, killing him instantly. The brothers root around and soon find the prospector’s collection of gold, nearly two hundred dollars’ worth.

They are about to leave the prospector’s camp when they see the abandoned boy arriving. The boy is bloodied and dazed, and says he was attacked by four men hunting a red-haired she-bear. The boy asks to go with them, but again the brothers decline his request. Eli gives him some of the gold and tells him to go back to Jacksonville.

Later, Eli and Charlie come across the famed red-haired she-bear. After some discussion, Charlie and Eli decide to kill the bear, take its pelt, and present the prize to Mayfield.

The brothers arrive in the town of Mayfield, which is named after the man who runs it. They meet Mayfield in his hotel and present him with the bearskin. Mayfield pays them, and they decide to stay the night in the hotel. Charlie stays to drink brandy with Mayfield while Eli leaves. The lobby is filled with whores who work at the hotel as well as the trappers, who are mad that the brothers killed the bear and kept them from a payday. One of the women is skinnier and more mysterious than the others, and Eli follows her to her room. Eli discovers that she isn’t a whore but Mayfield’s bookkeeper. The bookkeeper says that it isn’t safe for the brothers inside the hotel, so she takes him to a room that no one knows about.

The next morning Eli and the bookkeeper go for a walk. The bookkeeper talks about working for Mayfield, and Eli talks about the brothers’ violent work. Before they say goodbye, Eli slips half of his money for the pelt, forty dollars, into the bookkeeper’s pocket.

Before they can leave, Eli and Charlie are framed by the trappers and Mayfield now thinks they have stolen the pelt. Charlie decides that the only reasonable thing to do is return their money to Mayfield and get out of town. But Eli has already given his money away, to the bookkeeper. They decide to sneak out the window, get their horses, and flee.

In the barn, before they can get their horses, the brothers run into the four trappers, guns drawn. Charlie and Eli kill the trappers and go back to find Mayfield, who they discover was behind the whole scheme. Charlie and Eli make Mayfield give them all his money and sends him on a horse out of town.

As they ride out of town, Charlie reflects on the day their father died. Eli was too young to remember, so he listens closely to Charlie’s tale. Charlie and Eli were outside, and Charlie heard a commotion inside their house. He came in and found that their father had attacked their mother, so Charlie shot him.

Finally the brothers arrive in San Francisco. They make their way to the hotel where the Commodore’s advance man, Morris, was staying, but they discover that he is not in his room. According to the hotel clerk, Morris has not been seen in nearly a week, when he left in the company of a short man with a red beard, presumably the brothers’ target Hermann Warm. Morris told the hotel clerk that they were going to the Illuminated River. The only thing Morris left was a notebook, but the clerk is loathe to give it to the brothers. It takes some convincing, but the clerk finally hands the notebook over.

The notebook is Morris’s diary. In it he describes that after following Warm around, believing he was undetected, Warm approached him boldly. A peculiar fellow, Warm realizes that Morris has been tailing him in service of the Commodore, and asks that Morris leave off his work for the Commodore and join him instead. Warm says that he has created a foolproof chemical method for finding gold in river beds. It was this chemical formula that the Commodore is after. Touched by Warm’s personality and character, Morris decides to join him, and the two leave San Francisco for Warm’s prospecting camp on the River of Light.

After reading the diary, Charlie tells Eli that there was another component to the Commodore’s instructions: to extract the formula from Warm before they killed him. Eli has been touched by Morris’s descriptions of Warm, and wonders whether they should follow through on the job and kill the man. Where their previous victims seemed to be villains who had run afoul of the Commodore, Warm seems genuinely innocent.

The brothers spend a few days in San Francisco trying to decide how to procede. They take Tub to a doctor and have the horse’s bad eye removed. They then go to a saloon and talk to a man who had a run-in with Warm. Finally they decide to strike out for Warm’s prospecting camp to confront Morris and Warm, and if need be, kill both men. On the ferry leaving San Francisco, Charlie shares that he doesn’t feel right about killing Warm, either. The brothers decide to confront Morris and Warm and attempt to join their concern. Then they will return to Oregon City and kill the Commodore.

The brothers get off the ferry and enter the wilderness in search of Morris and Warm. They come upon a prospector who drinks coffee made with dirt and who unwittingly gives the brothers a clue about the whereabouts of Morris and Warm when he mentions a nearby beaver dam, which would make a perfect pool for the prospectors to employ their chemical gold-finding method.

On the way to the camp, Tub begins to cough and stumble. Eli dismounts and realizes that his horse is dying. Too emotional to shoot the horse and put it out of its misery, Eli leaves Tub where he fell and continues on foot.

Finally the brothers come upon the camp of Warm and Morris. The brothers set up at an elevated position where they can see the entire camp and river. But Warm sneaks up from behind them, points his gun at their backs, and tells them not to move. At gunpoint, Charlie and Eli try to explain that it was their plan not to kill Warm and Morris but join them, but their former targets are doubtful that is the truth. Primed to fire, Warm trips and falls down the hill toward the camp, and so the brothers flee before a shoot-out occurs.

The brothers return to their own camp to decide what to do next. Seeing that Warm and Morris are dead set against them, they decide that applying force is their only way out of the predicament. They sneak back towards the camp, this time taking the other way around so as to avoid capture.

Before the brothers can move against the chemical prospectors, Warm and Morris are attacked by roving bandits. Charlie and Eli engage the bandits with their guns and kill them easily, in the process endearing themselves to Warm and Morris and proving their loyalty. Warm and Morris decide to let the brothers in on their scheme, and they plan to start panning for gold the next evening as soon as it is dark.

The secret to Warm’s method is a powerful chemical that, once poured into a river, illuminates the gold beneath. The dangerous part of the method is the fact that the chemical is toxic to human skin. The men have to be very careful as they drain the chemical into the river so as not to interact excessively with the toxin. However dangerous, the chemical does work, and Eli and Charlie are awed by the sight of gold glowing in the dark river. As he dumps another barrel of the chemical, however, Charlie slips and spills the toxic liquid all over his right hand, doubly problematic for Charlie since this is his shooting hand.

Charlie isn’t the only one to have an accident, however. After they are finished scooping buckets of gold from the floor of the river, Morris walks back towards the bank across the dam. He loses his footing and falls into the river, completely submerged beneath the toxic sludge. Warm dives in after his friend, and while both men emerge from the river alive, their skins are burned badly. Morris dies quickly, and Warm follows soon after.

The brothers are shocked that their night of triumph has ended in such grotesque tragedy. The bury the two friends and decide what to do next. They wake up the next morning, but things have only gotten worse. Their camp is surrounded by Indians, busily plundering all of their gold and possessions.

At a loss, the brothers decide to return to Mayfield, where they still have a stash of the hotel owner’s gold, and then on to Oregon City, where they will dispense with the Commodore. Once they arrive in Mayfield, however, they find that the city has been burned to the ground, and the money they hid in the hotel is nowhere to be found. Eli finds that his beloved bookkeeper has left with most of the other inhabitants of the town, but the whores of the hotel are still there, angry at Charlie and Eli for beginning the destruction. The enraged women then attack the brothers, who are barely able to survive the brawl.

On the way back to Oregon City, Charlie has his hand amputated by a doctor in Jacksonville. Finally they make it back to Oregon City. Still drugged from his surgery, Charlie goes immediately to bed. Meanwhile Eli sets out to kill the Commodore. Eli sneaks into the crime boss’s house and finds him in the bathtub with a towel draped over his eyes, making a speech to an empty room. Eli sneaks up on the man, jumps into the bathtub, and drowns him.

The novel ends as Charlie and Eli return home. They knock on their mother’s door and are let in. Their mother is not surprised to see them, as if she has been expecting them any minute. She asks what happened to Charlie’s hand and Eli says that he lost it. She asks them if they are done with their violent criminal ways, and Eli says that they are. She then proceeds to make them beef stew, the first home-cooked meal the brothers have had in quite a long time. 

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