MOUNT VERNON, Texas - Maybe Robert Whiteside was angry, busy inside his bed-and-breakfast or lost in a creative binge at the jewelry workshop, but it still wasn't like him to ignore Warren Butler's calls.
Warren, Robert's 54-year-old partner, had left Mount Vernon on a late October Monday in 2006, driving 110 miles to Dallas, where he planned to spend four days. Robert promised he'd call on Tuesday morning, Halloween. He hadn't.
Most likely, Warren concluded with some irritation, he was sealed inside the studio behind The Veranda Bed & Breakfast, withdrawn in the jewelry that won him wide renown in those years before he'd forsaken Dallas for 68 acres of East Texas pine, oak and sweet gum.
Warren had moved in with him in 2001, albeit with reservations.
What will you do for friends? For fun? Won't you be awfully lonesome?
Mount Vernon, after all, was not a social hub for two gay men. In fact, on the surface, it could be an advertisement for straight America, a 2,300-resident town built 150 years ago by corn and cotton along the southern flank of the Bible Belt. A smattering of antique stores and a century-old white limestone courthouse bracket the downtown square, near where the Fire Station Museum features an homage to former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith. It's a place, like most small Southern towns, where you're an insider or an outsider. Warren was definitely an outsider.
But after years adjusting to social isolation, he had become largely happy. Most days, he tended to the day-to-day details of the bed-and-breakfast operation while Robert looked after the restaurant and his workshop. For a shot of urbanity, Warren traveled at least once a month to Dallas to work a couple of shifts at Tower Records, attend his movie club and catch up with friends.
Usually on such trips, Warren and Robert talked all the time. But as the hours passed on Tuesday, Robert's cellphone began rolling straight to voicemail.
After a couple of drinks at a Dallas bar, Warren left a terse message on the kitchen answering machine, a sound Robert would be sure to hear from the wrap-around porch or inside the house.
"I just wanted to thank you for returning my calls."
He fell asleep without a reply, annoyed but still unworried.
They had never worried much about safety. When Warren moved to The Veranda, he had expressed some concern. He still locked his car doors, an act that elicited laughter from Robert. They only had to be as visible as they wanted, Robert would say.
Warren, for his part, was used to keeping a low profile. Despite some past long-term partners, he had never told his family he was gay. He was usually the supportive one in relationships, a role he found comfortable. It was the same with Robert.
And at The Veranda, six miles outside city limits, it was easy to keep to oneself. Groceries were delivered by truck for the restaurant, and there was little reason to leave except for a quick run to the post office or liquor store.
Where on earth could Robert have possibly gone?
By Wednesday morning, Warren's irritation began to slide into worry. He had gone to work for a shift at Tower Records but couldn't keep his mind still. He paced back and forth.
"Warren, are you OK?" his supervisor asked.
Warren was not OK.
"Look, we have enough staff on board. If you want, you can go ahead and leave at 7 and go home."
"I really think I should."
He drove through the night, turning off Interstate 30 to Highway 37 and then eventually to a narrow red dirt and gravel ribbon snaking through pine stands that yield to a large clearing where the two-story farmhouse stands.
Robert's truck wasn't there. Warren greeted that with relief. He was probably at the store buying cigarettes or red wine.
But as he approached the house, their dog Rachael whimpered out front. Warren moved around back, entering the kitchen.
The house was dark but undisturbed. Warren walked through the dining and living room, past antiques and oil paintings, up a lit narrow staircase and through the door to the master bedroom. It was black, except for faint light spilling into the ante-hallway from a walk-in closet.
He walked over and turned on Robert's nightstand lamp. He saw a chair knocked over and clothes strewn on the floor. Robert's rifle rested on the bed next to a bowl of cereal.
Warren slowly pivoted, panning the room. He screamed:
He did not need to touch the body. It lay face down on a workout mat, ankles crossed, peaceful, like he'd been doing push-ups and fallen asleep. The blood was already brown under his head.
There had been four bullets. Three tore clean through him, including one in the side of the head. Another had gone through a DVD of Gone With the Wind, the last movie they had watched together.
Robert King Whiteside, 56 years old, had been dead and alone for two days.
Involuntary thoughts firing through the brain: hate crime, suicide, sex crime, robbery.
In the dead of night, Warren saw police camera flashbulbs popping through the windows of The Veranda. He sat in the back seat of a squad car, sobbing and trying to digest it all.
He had lived in the shadow of this man who seemed unassailable. Robert never failed at anything he put his mind to. And he had tried a great many things: jewelry, clarinet, piano, flying airplanes, antique restoration, oil painting, French cooking.
On a Friday night he could artfully prepare poached mussels in a white wine sauce in The Veranda's kitchen. Then the next morning, he'd be out in the studio finishing work on an enameled Faberge-style egg or a brooch of 18-karat gold set with round diamonds and cabochon rubies.
Living in Dallas in the 1980s, Robert had mastered the arts of guilloche engraving and vitreous enameling - Old World, disappearing techniques made famous by Russian artist Carl Faberge in the 19th century. The work had brought Robert some measure of fame, with a client list that once counted Nancy Reagan, Lady Bird Johnson and Queen Silvia of Sweden next to assorted Dallas millionaires.
He ran a workshop on Inwood Road and traveled the black tie charity circuit with a look made for such events: short, handsome with a self-effacing smile, gentle face and soft Southern accent that betrayed his boyhood in Mississippi.
His publicist and friends knew he was on the brink of greater celebrity, right on the cusp. But then he walked away. He wasn't willing to pay the sacrificial price of fame, some would later say.
Instead, Robert moved to the land just outside Mount Vernon in 1997. He had hauled the old Johnson farmhouse from the western outskirts of town through the woods onto his property. He was at peace.
Warren had never heard of Robert before they met on Yahoo personals in 2000, although they had traveled in many of the same Dallas circles.
Warren was the oldest of four children of a farm products salesman and his wife, born in a small town in Nebraska and raised in Waco. After high school, he had fled to Los Angeles, working as a model and in various retail jobs. He still had an elegant look: fine features, pale skin and straight, shoulder-length silver hair.
His partners, few in number, had always been successful business types, A-list people.
Robert was no different.
They met for the first time at a Dallas coffee shop. That led to Warren's driving to Mount Vernon on New Year's Eve 2000. He remembered it was like entering a scene in The Blair Witch Project, weaving through pine trees until the house emerged - gleaming with a putty and white trim exterior and wrap-around green porch. A Christmas tree sparkled through the cut glass door. A hundred yards behind that was a four-acre pond fronted by a white wood gazebo.
Warren returned nearly every weekend until he moved in for good in May 2001.
In those early months, he often wished he could move back to Dallas. Robert had few friends and recoiled from superficial social encounters. Warren was bordering on giving up his identity, but he was very much in love and knew Robert wouldn't want to leave.
Robert, for his part, wanted Warren to find himself in the same way he had.
He would ask Warren to explore himself. To figure out who he was. To challenge his sense of self. To try to figure out what motivated him, made him tick.
Many times, these conversations ended the same way: "Well, Robert, I never thought about that."
Or: "OK, Robert, this is enough for right now. I'm getting a little uncomfortable."
Robert always believed things had a reason.
Robert was preparing him for this, Warren would later think.
By the clear light of a Texas winter morning, it began to become plain that the crime was a killing not motivated by hate or sex, but simple robbery. It had been botched and bloody, orchestrated by a known local drug user with two others in tow. The plan had been to bind Robert with duct tape, get the combination to his safe and steal jewelry. Startled from sleep, Robert had tried to run away. That's when the intruders got jumpy and fired a handgun.
Luckily for the authorities, they were as stupid as they were cruel. The shooter, a 21-year-old named Mark Aaron Rains, was quickly arrested in Dallas using Robert's credit card at the same gas station over and over again. A second man, Jose Chavez, was arrested days later. The third remained at large.
Across Franklin County, news of the crime spread quickly by word-of-mouth. Warren's private life was about to become very public. He spent the first night at a friend's house on Lake Cypress Springs. But on Friday, he needed to go back to The Veranda. If he didn't return quickly, he might never be able to.
Plus, the newspapers would invariably describe him as Robert's same-sex partner. He needed to prepare his family for that.
Since he was a teenager, Warren had known he was gay, known it in the same way he knew green was his favorite color. Just was.
He didn't go out of his way to hide it, but like many in his generation, he didn't see much value in confrontational coming outs. Through the years, he had only told his brother Jim once when they were drunk. His mother and his other siblings - Bill and Ramona - didn't know.
"I just wasn't the type that wanted to do anything to cause my parents any discomfort or embarrassment. I just didn't feel it was worth that," he'd say. "A lot of gay people do. Some of them kind of take pride in the way they come out with their parents. I just didn't feel the need to do that."
His family had suspicions but figured he'd say something when he was ready.
Now 54 years old, he was ready. Ramona Moon had come into town from Waco on Friday, two days after Warren found Robert's body.
They sat in the living room:
"Ramona, there's something I need to tell you."
Of course, like everyone, she had suspected it.
Ramona did not say much. It wasn't the right time for a lengthy conversation about it.
"He was just in a state of shock, really a basket case. I want to say he was strong, but he really wasn't," Ramona remembered.
That first night back, Warren slept in one of the guest rooms. The next morning, a friend found him back in the master bedroom where the bloodstain still sat on the carpet, covered by a bath towel. He was making the bed and tidying up the mess.
"Warren, what are you doing, and why are you up here by yourself?" she asked.
"Look, I've got to start reclaiming my space. If I don't, I'm afraid I won't be able to."
"Do you need help?"
"No, I need to do this by myself."
That night, he got into his old bed, turned off the lights and pulled up the covers.
"Do I really want to do this?" he thought to himself.
Within minutes, Ramona came into the room with a candle in both hands, looking like an angel. She crawled into bed with him. They slept.
Ever since moving to Mount Vernon, Warren had kept his life carefully segmented into different social groups. On Nov. 11, less than two weeks after the murder, all those worlds came together for Robert's memorial.
Instead of a funeral, Warren and Robert's brother, Harry, had decided on a simple service in the gazebo by the pond.
Most everyone came. Warren's family drove up from Waco. Old friends and Robert's former clients traveled from Dallas. Same-sex couples arrived from across the region. There were the town people and the lake people - "those damn lake people," as they're called by some old-timers.
And there was J.D. Baumgardner, Mount Vernon's affable, silver-haired mayor.
It was like there were no strangers, the mayor would remember.
"It was quite an unusual event for all of us that were able to be a part of it," he said.
Still, the prevalence of gay couples came as somewhat of a shock to Warren's brothers, dealing with news of their brother's sexuality.
Jim, a former police chief for a Waco suburb, had never confronted so many same-sex partners.
"It was an eye-opener for me," he later said.
"My original opinion of the homosexual lifestyle was the marches in San Francisco, the made-for-TV stuff and when I had a church group at gay day at AstroWorld and all the transvestites were out. I've wrestled with that."
But throughout the day, everyone seemed to blend. Jim and Bill, who had both liked Robert a great deal, disarmed their discomfort with humor.
They were all brothers, after all, and that bond was a transcendent one. Still, Jim worried for Warren now that his sexuality was public knowledge.
"He was in a relationship that wasn't considered mainstream in society. I'll be honest with you, I feared for his life."
Small towns, after all, like some families, can often get a bad rap for intolerance to difference.
Even Warren's friends had wondered about it when he moved out, thinking of the stereotype of insulated and close-minded societies ruled by a provincial social network of churches.
Warren had thought some of the same things, and was, at first, uncomfortable going into Mount Vernon after Robert's death. All those knowing eyes and stares and unspoken thoughts.
But small towns rally around their wounded. Something about this crime was slowly weaving Warren into the fabric of the place.
"Here, somebody in the south end of the county or the north end of the county or Mount Vernon gets sick, you may not even know 'em, but everybody's gonna be doin' fundraisers to help them," Franklin County Sheriff Chuck White later said.
At First Baptist Church, where he was voting shortly after Robert's death, two ladies came up.
"Warren, we are just so sorry."
He burst into tears.
At the grocery store, a woman grabbed his hand, offering a simple condolence.
"At the post office, for heaven's sake. I was at the post office one day. ... I was up at the teller and then a lady behind me, she walked up to me. She reached out and took my hand."
He had to excuse himself.
"And what amazed me is I didn't know these people. How did they know me? My picture hadn't been in the paper or anything."
Before long, he started getting invitations. His handyman was in a domino group.
Would he like to join?
"I would have run away [from Mount Vernon] in a second," said Lu Butler, a member of the group whose family spans seven generations in these parts.
"I certainly wouldn't have stayed, certainly wouldn't have stayed. He found him, he's the one who found [the body]."
After years of living in the background, Warren was coming out to his family and in town. But he couldn't escape Robert's shadow. It enveloped and haunted him. And in its spell, Warren was becoming the ghost, gaunt and smoking Parliament 100s.
He couldn't go in the kitchen or use the oven - that had been Robert's space. He subsisted on Ensure nutrition shakes, dropping 30 pounds in the two months after Robert's death. This was a time he would refer to as "a fog." He was broken down to the tacks, to a point where his brother Bill could barely recognize him.
His mind suffered the same toll.
Sometimes early on after finding the body, he would dream, a dream that was really not more than an image: Robert standing there, shrugging his shoulders and smiling, impishly. That was all.
Warren lived in a museum of Robert, and everything was a memory. He couldn't let himself move furniture or change the color scheme, even though it really wasn't his style. On the computer, he had found the design for a ring Robert was working on as a gift. It bore an inscription: Warren & Robert. Two of a kind.
He had it made and wore it.
He couldn't watch movies, although certain lines from Gone With the Wind would get stuck in his consciousness.
"Don't look back, Ashley, don't look back. It'll drag at your heart until you can't do anything but look back."
He couldn't help it. On many nights alone, all he would have was his dog and music. Robert had given him a small radio transmitter so he could broadcast his music throughout the house. Mostly midcentury artists like Billy Vaughn, Percy Faith and Henry Mancini.
Oh what a hit we made
We came on next to closing
Best on the bill, lovers until
Love left the masquerade
Still, he stayed, although his family wondered if it was because he couldn't bear the thought of giving up Robert's legacy. He could have easily moved to Waco to take care of his elderly mother. Or back to Dallas to be around friends.
"Ramona, I don't know if this is what I need to be doing. Should I keep The Veranda?" he asked his sister once.
"Warren, I'm looking all around, and everything I see is Robert. Everything I see is Robert."
"Yes it is."
"Whose dream was this?"
"Well, it was Robert's dream."
"OK, it's Robert's dream, and then you came in and entered it."
"Yes, but now it's my dream, too."
That was true. Even before meeting Robert, Warren had wanted to own a bed-and-breakfast, something he told friends on travels around the country.
Now he had one. And people kept calling, asking when it would reopen. He didn't know if they would really come now that Robert, the soul of the place, was gone.
Apart from those emotions, there was the more practical question of whether he could really do what Robert had done.
He had never been on a riding lawnmower or worked a weed eater or a chainsaw, let alone a tractor, brush hog or front end loader.
This is what starting over feels like. Step by step.
It's just a kitchen. Just a stove. Just a lawnmower.
Calls kept coming.
When will The Veranda open?
If he was going to survive, he needed to reopen. There was no money coming in. Still, he wondered.
"I just can't do it," he'd say to his friend Mary Jane in Dallas.
"All you have to do is [put] one foot out of bed at a time."
"I don't know if people will come back."
It was Friday, May 18, when he opened The Veranda's restaurant and its rooms. Mary Jane traveled from Dallas to help in the kitchen.
They served beef tenderloin and mussels and bananas Foster, just like Robert did. Warren would go into the kitchen to cry, then buck up and talk to guests at tables. This was the way it had to be.
Customers returned the next weekend, too. And the next.
But Warren could not stop reliving the past. Not yet. Somebody needed to be held responsible for Robert's death. Over the next year, he would often wonder:
How many times does Robert have to die?