4.1 6
by Spring Warren

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A comic glance at the old American West and a serious story about transformation and redemption, Turpentine is a bold, inventive novel about a young man’s attempt to make sense of the past while unsteadily growing into adulthood. In 1871, Edward Turrentine Bayard III, sick and restless, leaves his Connecticut home to recover out west. But when the

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A comic glance at the old American West and a serious story about transformation and redemption, Turpentine is a bold, inventive novel about a young man’s attempt to make sense of the past while unsteadily growing into adulthood. In 1871, Edward Turrentine Bayard III, sick and restless, leaves his Connecticut home to recover out west. But when the private sanitarium in which he is to stay proves to be nothing more than a rickety outpost on the Nebraskan plains, he becomes a buffalo skinner. After returning to the East, Ned teams up with Phaegin, who earns her money rolling cigars, and Curly, a fourteen-year-old coal miner, but the newfound trio is wrongly accused of triggering a bomb at a labor rally, and they must flee. With a Pinkerton agent following their every move, the gang of winsome ne’er-do-wells takes flight on a circuitous escape through northern outposts into Indian country, past the slums of Chicago, and into the boundless Great Plains. En route they become witness to the transformation and growing pains of a burgeoning nation. A picaresque novel of wonderful energy and unforgettable characters, Turpentine is a comic, prescient look at the growth of an individual and a country.

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Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
At 17, the greatest miracle suffered by Edward Turrentine Bayard III is that the West had not yet killed him. In 1871, pallid and sickly, he's shipped from his Connecticut home to convalesce at a Nebraska sanitarium that's little more than a couple of two-by-fours and a sly scam. Marooned and miserable, he takes a job skinning buffalo and is immediately besotted. His swarthy landlady lends an ear and keeps him fed while the beautiful Lill Martine haunts his days with intoxicating promise. But neither the Old West nor the temptations of romance can contain him when he's offered a position back East.

Safely back in the Nutmeg State, Ned welcomes the attentions of a ragtag trio. All too soon, they're wrongly accused of planting a bomb at a local labor rally, and he and his newfound friends disappear for points west, a Pinkerton detective hot on their trail, misadventure their constant companion. Traveling through big city slums and the vast Great Plains, their escape takes Ned back to the American frontier and a long-awaited reunion.

Thrilling historical and geographical terrain is charted in Warren's debut, with a pitch-perfect narrator and canvas exploding with detail. Turpentine is a grand picaresque, a comic and winning patchwork of experience that measures one man's growth against that of a nation. (Holiday 2007 Selection)

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Grove Press, Black Cat
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5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

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Chapter 3

A week before her own death, my grandmother, murmuring into my ear as I reclined on the pillow, foretold what my good blood would tell. I would be as Peter the Great. Peter had been sickly, usurped and exiled to the wilderness. There he did not molder but hewed logs into a great garrison. Worked his small muscle into tremendous strength, returned to Moscow, and retook his empire. He built, with his own hands, the first heroic ships of Muscovy, the greatest shipyard ever known. Peter broke the boundaries of his private world, traveled widely, and learned more trades, skills, and sciences than a hundred men of his time, bringing culture and knowledge to the wild Russian steppes. He was made great by the wilderness and he did the same for it.

I was not hewing logs, but I could split kindling. Two months earlier I'd been in Connecticut, boarding the train. My physician, Dr. Bateman, who lifted me onto the train west as I wheezed painfully. I was to be treated in a small private sanatorium promising miracle cures for the lungs.

The only miracles I suffered, however, were the transformation of the sanatorium into a rickety outpost on the Nebraska plain; the doctor who sent the advertisement, a scoundrel with a printing press.

The greatest miracle was that the West had not yet killed me. Nebraska, being good for cold the way the south side of houses was good for lilacs, was yet covered in icy mud. After seventeen years avoiding dust and drafts like poison gas, I was now ever chilled, never clean, and with no choice but to push on.

Catching sight of myself in the rare pane of window glass, my hair dank and shaggy, my clothes ill-fitting, I worried the robust backbone of the prairie was working on me not only to good effect. After all, spitting was a Nebraskan sport, handkerchiefs unheard of, bathing an elective summer pastime. Upon my return to the fort I begged a haircut from my landlady Avelina.

She pulled out the scissors and told me to sit down. "Steer clear of that Lill, she's got a hundred years on you."

I glared from under the shower of hair clippings. "She's three years my senior, which is nothing. Lill's perfectly nice. Better than that, she's wonderful."

Avelina sighed, and an alarmingly long chunk of hair fell into my lap. I picked it up. "What are you doing?"

"Slipped. A wonderful girl won't mind that."

"Avelina! Please!"

"Don't get cramped. Hardly shows."

I kept my decision to make Lill mine to myself. Instead, I regaled Avelina with my newly discovered talent as sharpshooter. She trimmed calmly until I revealed my plan to, with luck, make a trade of Chin, my horse, for a firearm. Avelina shook the towel from around my neck and said, "If you're planning on getting anything for that horse other than a kick in the pants, you're in need of more than luck, Turpentine."

I didn't want to believe it. Chin had behaved herself on the way back to the fort. Admittedly, she had sidetracked for another bite of grass on the journey, but I'd decided that wasn't unreasonable. She was a big horse and in need of constant refueling.

Others had a different opinion. Though there was some controversy over her name -- either the horse had been named Chin, short for Chink, because she was obstinate, lazy, and not to be trusted, or it was short for Chinchilla, an animal useless until dead -- the regard was much the same. Sausage was too good for her. No one would waste lead on shooting what was certain to be unpalatable.

Chin had, in fact, been wandering the prairies for months. Some other rube who had been fooled into a tortured ownership set her adrift into a snowstorm back in November. The scout Tennessee, nicknamed for his opaque drawl, stalked her for a week and struggled through three days to hook her up to the wagon, all for the pleasure of saddling me with the joke. I supposed, if I played my cards right and was patient, the right greenhorn would show up and I could pass on the favor. But I could not wait that long to secure a gun.

Lill and I had exchanged letters, delivered by anyone going between the fort and her family's homestead. I opened the delicate envelopes with a shudder of pleasure. Yet as the violet scented letters multiplied under my pillow, my eagerness for my own firearm mounted into a panic. There was no question that our relationship was predicated on my sharpshooting skills. If I, a penniless young man, patched and of impeached social standing, wished to have any chance at all with the beautiful Lill, I was going to have to win her heart with a well-placed bullet.

And so when a homesteader came through, desperate for cash and offering a silver 22 pistol with a burled walnut handle for sale, I spent what I'd so painfully saved for a ticket home with barely a regret. I proudly showed the pistol to my boss Tilfert. He turned it over, handed it back. "Tell you now, Ned, if you was to shoot me with that gun and I was ever to find out about it, I'd kick you from one end of the prairie t' the other."

Tilfert was in a foul mood. Breaking up volatile skinners who still embraced Union and Confederate colors as if the war weren't over but only relocated to Nebraska, he'd had the lobe of one ear sliced almost from his head. As Tilfert bellowed, Avelina cut the hanging flesh from its mooring, too far gone to sew up. She threw the piece of skin out the door, handed Tilfert a cloth to hold to his head, and shouted, "Men will fight, no thought to what's left after, who they leave behind. Worse than animals. But I won't have the 'news carried home to Mary' on Tilfert Slade." She slammed tin plates on the table. "No, they can find their bloody way without taking my man's ears. Send 'em packing, I got another idea." I was unsettled by Avelina's pronouncements. I was one of the skinners Avelina was so callously sending packing. If Tilfert didn't pay me, certainly no one else was going to. I'd starve to death at the cusp of my growth spurt, my love affair withering on the vine.

I cleared my throat. "I'm out, then?"

Avelina looked surprised, then frowned and slapped the table. "You ain't goin' nowhere till you pay the sizable back rent you owe me . . . good and well worked it off, Turp. Got it?"

Tilfert snorted. "Work it off ? Came with two dollars in his pocket and now he owes me three." He shut up at the violent look from Avelina.

And so I entered into my second employment in Tilfert Slade's Wild Western hunting and scouting services, catering to the adventure hungry dudes who came west on the train (more numerous every day!). If all went as planned, we would certainly be rich by season's end.

The new concern seemed, however, employment only for Avelina and unpaid at that. She raised the tents where the dudes were to sleep, stretched buffalo robes to lay over each cot, and prepared large-scale meals. When she was ready, Avelina wagged the filaments of her gossip web, brushed Tilfert's hat, hung a gold medallion around his neck, and pushed the shy man to stand on the platform when the train came in. His aim: to snag dudes in search of adventure like trout on a line.

Tilfert suffered. He could hardly say hello to a stranger, much less reel one in. "Cain't you do the talkin', Ave?" he muttered, staring at the platform like Satan was going to rise from the buckled pine. She would have none of that, but after days of Tilfert standing red-faced and salt-mute beside the tracks, I was enlisted to provide narrative.

Tilfert made a great effort to look wild and monumental as I hiked my thumb in his direction and made up outrageous lies. "That's Tilfert Slade." I spoke conspiratorially as though I were blowing Hickok's cover. "Part bear, part Pawnee, part buffalo. Goes through bullets like peppermint candies. Killed more buffalo than any man on the planet and got that gold medal from President Grant himself for civilizing the prairies. Won't be any wild left much longer; I spose Tilfert will have to go to Argentina or Black Africa, because a man like him can't be contained. Still, he's got a few hunts left." I'd cross my arms and the dudes and I would stare and nod while poor Tilfert would try to contain his embarrassment and look savagely toward the lion-filled savannahs of his future.

"He's off on a hunt tomorrow. I'm goin' along to get some adventure before he's used it all up." Then I'd start, like an idea just came to me. "Say, you look like an adventuring kind of man. Would you be interested?"

Still, we had no takers. Tilfert's savage silence looked more like simple-mindedness as he reddened and sweated throughout my narrative, rolling his eyes at the bullshit. For my part, I was skinny as a bean and looked as disposed to adventure as a walking stick.

Though I worried what would happen to me if Avelina and Tilfert went under, there was a benefit to unemployment: the freedom to practice sharpshooting to my heart's content.

I headed out to the prairie, as anyone in sight laughed themselves silly. Chin, predictably and to the amusement of the fort company, refused to let me cinch her up to the wagon again: bucking, flirting out with her hind legs, rearing like a goat, and biting when any attempt to curtail her freedom was made. Her broomstick teeth and pie-plate hooves terrified me, so I gave up and traipsed about on foot.

That would have, in itself, been bearable. But Chin, though disinterested in being useful, was loath to be left behind. By the time I wandered ten yards from the fort in any direction, and no matter how carefully I crept away, Chin would espy my crouched form in the grass, commence neighing like an equine banshee, jump any fence or gate in her way, and follow at my heels like an enormous hound. It was hard to take.

On top of my horse problems, I found my beautiful little gun hopelessly out of whack, the barrel bent ever so slightly, the sights off-kilter. I couldn't hit a dog if I were standing on its tail. I was truly alarmed. If I couldn't be Lill's twin brother, could I hope to be her lover? I set my jaw. I would not give up. I practiced with that crooked firearm for hours, for days, my ears ringing, hands and shoulders stiff and sore, desperate to impress Lill. I used up my ammunition, spent the pennies I had left to buy more, used those up, then, unbeknownst to Avelina, begged more off the softhearted Tilfert.

Finally it came together. My muscles strengthened, my acuity sharpened, I could hit any stationary target with absolute regularity, though I couldn't hit a moving target worth beans. Tilfert was sufficiently impressed that he agreed to hold a playing card at arm's length for me to pierce with a bullet. If Avelina hadn't burst from the house howling, "Are y' completely soft in the head?" I think I would have done it. I also spent no little time imploring Chin to behave like a real horse. I cleared Avelina's garden of carrots, bribing Chin to allow the traces, the bridle, the harness, to be, initially, just alongside her, then to be lifted toward her, finally to be placed on her person.

I sluiced carrots into the horse's maw while holding long conversations, impressing Chin with my desperate need of transportation. She seemed to take my desires into consideration, nodding as I spoke. Whether it was my debating skills or she was made sluggish by the volume of carrots, by week's end she allowed me to tether her to the wagon.

Avelina, far from congratulating me on my accomplishment, came after me with the hoe. "A winter of stew you fed that no good animal, a spring of breaking sod and a goddamn summer of toting water to ruin her good and embarrass you both!"

Probably true, I morosely figured, and by acclimating to the bent pistol I'd likely ruined myself for shooting any decent gun on top of it. While worrying over a future handicapped from regular guns and steeds, and figuring that my plan to get more money for powder and lead from Avelina was now defunct, it occurred to me that at least I could make some use of my dubious experience.

I searched out Tennessee.

He grinned at my arrival. "Hey there, Turpentine."


"You teach that horse to fetch yet?"

I laughed. "You really caught me on that one."

"Can't take much credit for it, you being dumb as shit, Turp."

"Yeah, and you're a clever guy: savvy, even."

Tennessee looked wary. I hastened to camouflage the compliment. "I need some help. I want to impress that Martine girl with my new gun, and I can't hit anything. You being such a sure shot, I wondered if you'd give me a tip or two."

He took on a paternal air, nodded toward his rifle. "Sure. Let me get Henrietta, there."

We shot for a while. I aimed wild. Initially, Tennessee swelled like a toad every time I missed and he hit, patting the breechloading repeating rifle he'd been issued at Shiloh, like a faithful pet. After a time, however, he grew irritable with my poor showing, then out and out frustrated. I acted the good sport for a while until Tennessee exploded, "You ain't gettin' it at all. I hate to tell you, Turp, but you better learn to bake, 'cause at this rate you ain't never gonna shoot worth beans."

I let on like I was mad. "I can shoot just fine. It's harder to shoot with a pistol, and you know it."

"Aw, hell. It ain't that much harder."

"It is. You sit there with a rifle making easy shots and putting me down. I'll bet you couldn't hit half as good as I'm doing with my gun." Tennessee hooted. "Now that's rich, comin' from a cloudwatcher like you!"

I crossed my arms. "Rich, huh? I'm willing to put three dollars on it, it's so rich."

"Are you nuts?"

"Are you scared?"

"Shit, I'm not scared, but I ain't gonna take calico money." He grinned at my idiocy.

"You're scared, and I'm goin' back and tell everyone so."

Tennessee squared his shoulders and lost the grin. "All right, I'll take your money and teach you a lesson, you moronic greenhorn guttersnipe. Give me the goddamn pistol."

I handed him a bit of paper and a pencil. "Write it down, first. I'll do the same and the winner will keep the notes."

Tennessee looked at me with that wary look on his face again, but took the paper and put down his mark. I nodded.

"I'll go first." Four shots into the target center.

Tennessee took the gun. He looked down the barrel. "I 'spect I hardly need to make the attempt, do I?" Still he sighted, shot four times. He snorted at his poor showing. "Yup. You got me, Turp. Greenhorn no more."

Avelina forgave me for the garden debacle when, with Chin's help, we finally managed to snare half a dozen dudes to take part in the Wild Western Adventure. Instead of standing awkwardly on the station platform available for close inspection, Tilfert sat astride Chin, who, when plied with oats, would stand immobile. The sight of the titanic man on the gigantic horse was impressive indeed, as if western adventure itself pushed humans into monumental proportion.

The dudes stared, slack-jawed, at the spectacle. Each and every one were already in the grasp of the greenhorn disease, "buckskin grippe," which symptoms included leather coats and pants finished with fringe cut as long as possible and enough silver conchos to periodically blind one another with the sunlight winking off them, eventually progressing to include moccasins gaudy with porcelain beads.

I, wearing a shirt Avelina padded in the shoulders, complimented their bang-on costuming, and referred to Tilfert as "Zeus of the plains," and the dudes tumbled over themselves to purchase a breath of his Olympian atmosphere.

We herded the prospects into the tents, and Avelina fed them buffalo stew and rotgut as they chattered like schoolboys. They talked big talk into the night, sweating under the heavy buffalo robes, so full of excitement, whiskey, and the roles they were playing as to make sleep almost impossible. At dawn they arose from their cots looking a decade older than the night before, drank coffee, and pushed bacon around their tin plates.

The hunt itself was an embarrassment.

Tilfert, finally managing something to say, addressed the group of five shooters from the top of a small ridge. He motioned toward the dark smear near the horizon and mumbled, "There they are. We's gonna ride to 'bout there" -- he pointed to a freshet a small distance from the ridge -- "where we're gonna shoot. Don't jump too soon. You'll jes' spook 'em, make th' job harder."

The dudes pushed back their hats, jingled their spurs, and rearranged their leather doublets, wearing looks of fierce concentration. Tilfert mounted his horse, the dudes followed suit. Tilfert began the approach, then turned and cautioned. "If the herd looks like it's comin' right on you, anythin' you can do not to be caught in the middle of 'em is a real good idea."

I waved good luck and Tilfert rode up close. He tossed me his hat and nodded toward the dudes, jingling and shifting in nervous anticipation. "If anything happens to me, that hat's yours, Ned. Good and broke in, prob'ly put on two pounds since the day I bought it."

Tilfert rode out, the dudes jouncing on their horses to keep up. Before they reached the stream and the appointed shooting sight, however, anticipation proved too much. At the report of a gun behind him, Tilfert ducked low over the pommel of his saddle.

At that distance from the buffalo, the dudes had an icicle's chance in hell of hitting anything, but once a bullet was spent, the dudes, absolutely unconcerned over Tilfert's being in their line of fire, discharged rifles with abandon. The buffalo bolted. Tilfert urged his horse into a gallop, either to catch the herd or to escape the dudes' fire, I couldn't know. By the time Tilfert galloped abreast of the herd, the dudes were still struggling to calm horses spooked by the whooping and shooting. Tilfert did the only thing he could to save the hunt: He shot a big cow in the haunch to slow her up, then turned the limping animal back toward the dudes. When the hunters spied the wounded cow, now the only buffalo in sight on the wide prairie, they kicked their horses into action, pursuing the maimed cow like the furies.

All in all, it was Tilfert's life that was in the greatest danger, as the dudes attempted to bag their trophy. Watching Tilfert duck an unremitting whine of lead overhead while the buffalo strained, tongue out and eyeballs rolling, overheated from the protracted run, it occurred to me that it would be safer for my friend, and provide a quicker death for the buffalo, if the dudes were to target Tilfert instead. Or Tilfert could have allowed the dudes to shadow the cow all day until the animal died of exhaustion. Yet he kept patiently turning the animal, giving the dudes one chance after another to make their target. The men shot off a horn here, a piece of hide there, fired into the dirt and over the animal's head, enraged her by peppering haunches, slowed her with unwitting hits in a torturous farce of hunting.

I clutched Tilfert's hat, ducking and dodging in sympathy, wondering how I was going to tell Avelina her man was gunned down by men who that morning hadn't even known how to put bullets in a rifle.

Finally Tilfert'd had enough and delivered a fifty-caliber coup de grâce. The cow rolled into the dirt. The men dismounted and emptied their rifles into the dead animal.

Tilfert got off his horse and fell to his knees. I ran to him, terrified he'd been hit. His face was raised to the heavens. He whispered into blue sky, "I'm alive! " He looked at me, thunderstruck. "If I never thought there was a God afore, Ned, can't say I don't think so now." He jammed the hat I offered him back on his head. "Let's get to it."

There wasn't much reason to skin out the carcass, riddled as it was with holes and the meat rank from the steam she'd built up. Tilfert would send the men home with robes we'd skinned previously, so I wielded the knife at the hunt site merely as theater.

In spite of their poor showing, or perhaps because of it, the dudes had the audacity to berate my skills. They gathered around, having close to exhausted themselves whacking each other on the back in congratulations. One fellow nudged me with a silvertoed boot, speaking in an Easterner's idea of a Westerner's drawl. "Knife's bigger 'n you are, young buck. Get yourself something your own size, maybe you'd do better."

I looked up, incredulous. "I should do better?" No less than twenty bullet holes slubbed the hide. "You've got nerve --"

Tilfert hurried over. "There, there, Ned. You jus' leave that be. I'll finish it myself." He ushered the men away, his near death experience having loosened his tongue and warmed him to his part. "Don' mind 'im, orphaned by Indian attack, had 'is hair half lifted, now's not altogether there."

Furious and disappointed, I strode away. Some distance off, I pulled out my notebook. I'd entertain Lill with a drawing of the gaggle of dudes: the outlandishness of their costumes, puffed hair, and smirks.

As I sketched, I considered the buffalo. Out on the plains they were majestic, awe-inspiring. Once you were close enough to smell them, they ceased to be kings of the prairie, but vehicles for lice and worms, fur-matted, shit-spattered. From afar the wealthy sparkled, and I thought once again of Peter the Great.

My grandmother didn't tell me -- perhaps she didn't know -- that the boy Peter, within his log garrison, killed two hundred and forty children in the jejune war games he conducted there. She didn't tell me that the man Peter conducted himself like a sophomoric ogre, not so much wearing his welcome out as ransacking it in one country then another at the cost of thousands of lives. Peter ordered his own son, who had fled the penalty of rule and his terrible father, to be beaten until he agreed to follow his father's footsteps. The boy died before he would do so. If Peter was great, how terrible was Ivan? What are the men who back our wars, our hungers, our progress?

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