Traipsing through some old Texas haunts

Paulette Jiles

If you’ve ever had your car dented by a six-foot tumbleweed while driving down 287 near Amarillo, if you’ve noticed how the grass turns from brown to green between Longview and Tyler, know how to pronounce Waxahachie, Montague, Nacogdoches and Mexia, know the origins of the names of Travis County and the towns Bowie and Crockett, then you probably will have a somewhat greater appreciation of and affection for Paulette Jiles’ novels “News of the World” and “Simon the Fiddler.”

Each book takes the reader on a jaunt through quaint and rugged post-Civil War Texas. They fairly reek of authenticity.

In “News,” former Confederate Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd earns a living by traveling to out-of-the-way towns, reading for 10 cents a head to small gatherings weeks old newspapers from the big cities. In Wichita Falls, Kidd is offered $50 to take a 10-year-old orphaned girl who had been captured by the Kiowa and her family killed a few years earlier to relatives near San Antonio.

The child was reluctant to leave the only “family” she knew. Sounds a bit like the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was captured by a Comanche and Kiowa raiding party. She later married Peta Nocona and gave birth to Quanah Parker — two more Texas town names.

In “Simon,” former Confederate conscript Simon Boudlin survives by playing his fiddle in small bands for music hungry bar patrons while pursuing the hand of an Irish lass who is the indentured servant of a former Union colonel, hoping to settle on a tract of land near the Red River. Much of Simon’s repertoire will be familiar to fans of Celtic folk.

Both books take the reader along twists and turns not unlike the streets of San Antonio, which are said to have been laid out by a drunk (pick your favorite ethnicity to slur) on a blind mule.

Here is an excerpt from “News:”

Captain Kidd took off his hat and shook water from it. Britt Johnson had rescued at least four captives from the red men. From the Comanche, from the Kiowa, and once from the Cheyenne up north in Kansas. Britt’s own wife and two children had been taken captive three years ago, in 1867, and he had gone out and got them back. Nobody knew quite how he had done it. He seemed to have some celestial protection about him. He usually went alone. Britt was a rescuing angel, a dark man of the Red Rolling Plains, cunning and strong and fast like a nightjar in the midnight air. But Britt was not going to return this girl to her parents, not even for fifty dollars in gold.

Why won’t you go? said Captain Kidd. You have come this far already. Fifty dollars in gold is a considerable amount.

I figured I could find somebody to hand her off to here, Britt said. It’s a three-week journey down there. Then three weeks back. I have no haulage to carry down there.

Behind him Paint and Dennis nodded. They crossed their arms in their heavy waxed-canvas slickers. Long bright crawls of water slid across the livery stable floor and took up the light of the lantern like a luminous stain and the roof shook with the percussion of drops as big as nickels.

 

Here is an excerpt from “Simon:”

Simon stood on a flatbed wagon and poured the notes out into the overheated air, unmoving, straight-backed, his hat cocked forward over his face. He had a high-boned face, bright hair, and light eyes and his music was enchanting.

A banjo player sat at the edge of the wagon. He was an old man who tipped his head carefully as if there were water in it and it might spill over. He was trying to hear where it was that Simon was going with the melody and to follow if he could. Simon drew out the last note with a strong vibrato and bowed to the applause, and when he raised his head he searched out the edges of the crowd like a hunted man.

After a moment he laid his bow tip on the old man’s shoulder to get his attention and smiled. “How are you doing?” he said in a loud voice. “Could be you want a cold drink. They have ice, I saw it in a pitcher.”

“All right.” The old man nodded. “Yessir, doing fine, but I think they done come.” The old man kept on nodding. He was cotton-headed and partially blind.

“Who done come?”

“The conscription people.” Simon was still and silent for a heartbeat, two heartbeats. Then he said, “Well Goddamn them.”