This year I started out Nanowrimo (Wordcount just over 20k for those keeping track) working on the next novel in the Donovan DeChance series, which was to be “Kali’s Tale,” the story of one of the young vampires in Vintage Soul setting off for a town near The Great Dismal Swamp to kill the one who created her. Along the way, I decided I wanted a flashback for Donovan. It would be, I said, the short story of how he became who, and what he is – a back-story filler for those who love that sort of thing. I hit the right spot in the book, started the flashback, and danged if it didn’t spin out of control…
For one thing, I’m writing the flashback with no more of an outline than a brief synopsis. This freed me up to add in a lot of details. That turned what was to be a chapter, maybe two, into five, and then six. I chose a familiar setting for the story – the western town of Rookwood, but before the days of Hallowed Ground. In fact, SIlas Boone is a boy, as is the eight-fingered piano player McGraw. There is still life and love and mystery in the town. In Hallowed Ground it’s the dying husk of a settlement that’s purpose – supplying things to those traveling west – had left it all but a ghost town. In 1842, it was very much alive.
I’ve answered a lot of questions. Donovan’s age. How he met Cleo, his familiar…why he does what he does, and how he discovered it…this has opened up a hundred years of adventures I can come back to, while maintaining the modern-day line of books simultaneously.
Kali’s Tale will likely not include this flashback. It’s simply too long. It will be either a short novel on it’s own, or a novelette, and it will be released before the new year. Kali’s Tale I return to in a day or two, once this “flashback” that became a book is in the can. I’ll leave you with a short excerpt…
The old wagon smelled of sweat, leather, cheap liquor, and a miasma of spices, herbs, and chemicals that would have driven a bloodhound crazy. Donovan leaned back into a pile of old rags and tried to peer out through the crack between two of the wagon’s warped boards at the passing countryside. He knew they were getting close. Whenever they neared a town, or a settlement, Rathman picked up the pace. The two old ponies scented fresh apples and hay, and the old man scented whiskey and women. Donovan knew he would work long into the night, but hoped, in the end, it would mean a hot meal. Sometimes, if he could keep his distance from Rathman and find an hour’s work sweeping, or scrubbing, or shoveling out a stable, he could earn a decent meal before the old man’s screeching, bullying voice dragged him back to the wagon. At least it was something to hope for.
The town they expected to run up on next was called Rookwood. Donovan had never seen the place, but Rathman remembered it from many years back. Donovan hoped it was a lot of years, because the old fraud was seldom welcomed back to a place a second time if anyone remembered his previous visit, and it wasn’t easy to forget. For one thing, the decrepit old wagon was painted over with brilliant, garish designs.
“Dr. Hugo Rathman, Healer, Mystic, and Clairvoyant” was painted dead center in paint so bright and so red that circling buzzards had mistaken it for blood more than once and spiraled down to have a closer look. More than once Donovan had peered out into the driver’s seat of the wagon to be certain the carrion feeders weren’t after Rathman himself. The old man could drink himself into a death-like stupor so deep that he seemed dead.
Finally they passed by the first small grouping of board and tar shacks. Donovan caught sight of a think boy with wild hair and no shirt. For just a second he’d have sworn the kid met his gaze, right through the boards. A second later, the boy was off, flying barefoot across the desert toward town. Apparently visitors weren’t common in Rookwood. Donovan frowned. The rarer they were, the more likely someone would remember Rathman. It was possible that the old man hadn’t cheated anyone on his last visit, but that would make this a rare visit indeed. At least three lawmen were watching out for the wagon because ill townsfolk had taken one or more of Rathman’s potions and either fallen deeper into their illness, or died outright – poisoned.
Whatever the situation, Rathman didn’t hesitate. He aimed the wagon dead-center down the main road of the town, bumping through potholes and jarring Donovan’s teeth with each jouncing yard they progressed. The wagon creaked and moaned, but it held together. It always managed to hold together. Like Rathman, it seemed there was no force on the road or in the desert that could put the final nail in its coffin.
“You ready, boy” Rathman grated, turning so that his unshaven face, wild dark hair and red-veined eyes glared back into the shadows. There was no way he could see into the interior, but he still managed to stare directly into the particular shadows where Donovan rested.
“Yes sir,” Donovan said.
Rathman stared a moment longer, then nodded. He turned back to the reins, steered around a corner a bit too quickly, nearly tilting the wagon up on two wheels, and a moment later they came to a halt. Donovan rose, stepping up to the front of the wagon and peering out around the edge.
It was an alley between what looked to be a stable, and a taller wooden building that might have been a saloon or hotel. Rathman dropped the reins, stood, and stretched, pressing his knuckles tightly into the lower half of his back. He’d been sitting in the same position for nearly thirty miles, and Donovan knew it would take more than an hour for the stoop to leave him.
“I’m goin’ to see about getting the horses taken in,” he said. “You get this wagon ready – hear? We’ll be settin’ up in the morning, and there’s no time for delays.”
Rathman seemed to drop almost into a trance then, as if listening to a voice Donovan couldn’t hear. Then he turned back.
“Put out the books, and the rheumatism tinctures. Arrange some of the other cures behind. Then get this place presentable and set up my table. I believe the spirits might just speak to me here. There’s something in the air.”
Donovan thought that all there was in the air was dust. He thought, very briefly, of his father, sickly and barely able to carry himself to work in a mine so dark and deep it swallowed men whole. He thought of his mother, though he could barely remember her face. He thought of the tiny room that had been his, the bed that had grown too short to contain his long, lanky legs, and he sighed. At that moment, he’d have traded half his life to be back there, caring for his father – assuming the old man hadn’t passed on – and getting ready to take his own turn in the mines.
“Apprentice,” was the title he’d been granted so long ago. “Assistant to a man of books and medicine. A learned scholar with the ear of the spirits and the mind of a professor. What it had boiled down to was the life of an indentured manservant. He’d learned to read, but only by his own dogged effort, and stolen moments with Rathman’s precious books. When he proved he could earn a dime or two by reading from the old tales to those who passed by, the good “doctor” had taken an interest and taught what he could between drunken binges and fits of curse-spewing malevolence. He was obviously torn between the fear of teaching too much and having Donovan run off on his own, and the greedy desire for his apprentice to be able to shoulder a share of the burden of making their living. It was also true that no listener had ever asked for their money back, or threatened to run Donovan out of town on a rail, and likely Rathman held that against him too.