It has been a whirlwind week, y’all — my book got released, I gave a reading and lecture, I made it to the finalists list for the Million Writers Award — so I haven’t been able to keep up with the writing as well as I did the first week of November. I’m currently behind schedule by about a thousand words, and I don’t look likely to catch up tomorrow.
Still, I’ve crossed the halfway count and am currently sitting on 25,887 words, most of them pretty damned good. And while I’m still in “write whatever scene grabs you” mode, and am therefore all over the place in the plot with little hope of pulling the book together cohesively anytime soon, I haven’t gone completely off the rails, so the novel’s general story is still pretty clear. In fact, in some ways, it’s even clearer: just yesterday, a friend of mine was talking about this podunk town near where she grew up where all the women used to have their teeth pulled and replaced with dentures as a wedding present! Which then got my wife talking about this other small town near where she grew up — in the same region of Texas where my novel is set — and that got us both researching the Texas town, only to discover it had a pretty rough reputation back in the time period my novel is set . . . . So now my novel’s badass — the protagonist’s rival — is from that rough-and-tumble frontier town, and I’m trying to find some way to work in the teeth detail, too.
The stuff you come up with when you’re waist-deep in a book.
Anyway, here are some excerpts:
I had known Sergeant Tom for nearly a week before I realized he wore a wedding band. It was thin and nicked from rough wear, and he never fiddled with it the way so many men will, almost as though he’d forgotten it was still on his finger. When I spied it, I asked him where his wife was. He became quiet and looked at his ring as though for the first time, like someone else had placed it there without his knowing — his eyes widening with sudden recognition.
“My wife is in DeQueen,” he told me. “She is in the ground. ”
“I’m so sorry Sergeant Tom. Had I realized I would never have pried. ”
“It’s of little consequence I suppose. It’s been some two or three years now. She died in childbirth. Afterward I took to drinking a hard spell. I don’t even recall for how long it went on. I only recall waking with the split head in a jail cell. I don’t mean just from the hangover, I mean there was a gash down the back of my skull and the bone itself exposed. Or so I was told, my head being wrapped in bandages then. I asked the jailer how I’d come to be there, and he told me I’d been in a fight. I asked how the other man looked, or if maybe I had killed him and that was why I was in the cell. But he told me that it hadn’t been just the one man. I’d fought half the men in town in one night and it wasn’t until one of them pistol-whipped me so hard he like to crack my head open that I finally went down. And in other news, he told me I owed the saloon owner a good forty-five dollars for all of whiskey I had consumed. I asked him how long I had been drinking to consume that much whiskey, and he told me no one could be sure, all the days and nights run together as they were. The saloon man claimed that I had been there from open to close every day for three days and nights, and each night, though I’d consumed enough to kill a man, I somehow had the wits about me to still order a full bottle and a glass, which I carried into the street where I continued until the saloon man returned downstairs in the morning the open up again. At which point I would stagger or sometimes crawl back inside and carry on.”
In Salem, we encountered a man named Napoleon Kempe, a tall, rugged individual with broad shoulders and skinny legs. He towered over all three of us — he could just see over the top of Bill Caviness’s hat, and if he’d dared he could easily have rested his chin on the crown of Sergeant Tom’s head. His coat was snug against his arms and shoulders, the cuffs exposing his wrists and part of his forearms, while his trousers hung loose and were cinched with a rope at his narrow hips like the drawstring sack. Dressed like this, he seemed two different men stitched together.
Leon Kempe came from Tennessee and was making his way into the heart of Texas, aimed for a German settlement in the rolling hills north of San Antonio. He had a brother there who had sat out the war, a decision that had torn the brothers apart, and they had not so much as written to each other in almost four years, until he received notice a few weeks before we met him. His brother, John, had gone to Mexico to sit out the war, and there he’d met and married a woman. With the war over, the brother was making his way back into Texas and hoped he might reconcile with his younger sibling, if only so John Kempe’s children might know their uncle. And so Leon, a gentle man by nature and as kindly as he was imposing, rode to make amends.
He told us this over a whiskey at Sergeant Tom’s expense, the two men sipping their drinks through swollen lips and loose teeth, for almost as soon as they had met, they broke into a fight. Sergeant Tom recognized at once the utility of a man as massive as Leon Kempe, and he decided on the spot to recruit him into our company. But he knew, too, that no man so big would have any need to follow another unless he saw a reason to, and Sergeant Tom could think of only two ways to persuade the mountainous man: he could either lick Leon Kempe in a fight, or prove that he was brave enough to attempt it and not worth crossing no matter the outcome. And so he approached Leon in the street, calling out to him in greeting, and when Leon extended his big hand for shake, Sergeant Tom raised up on his toes and punch Leon square in the nose.
A light rain misted in from the northwest and the horizon had gone the color of a horseshoe. I passed a fingertip over the line of clouds low to the earth and I spoke in a low voice to Sergeant Tom: “Looks like a storm’s coming in. ”
“We’re in Texas,” he said. “There’s always a storm waiting somewhere out here.”