A serial “black widow,” Lyda Southard married seven men in five states over the course of eight years. Between 1915 and 1920, four of her husbands, a brother-in-law, and Southard’s three-year-old daughter — all recently covered by life insurance policies at Southard’s suggestion — died only months after the nuptials, apparently of ptomaine poisoning, typhoid fever, influenza, or diphtheria. Southard was convicted of second-degree murder in the poisoning death of her first husband, earning her a ten-years-to-life sentence in the Old Idaho State Penitentiary. She escaped with the warden’s assistance in 1931, only to be recaptured and returned to serve another eleven years before receiving parole. After changing her name and divorcing three times, she died of a heart attack in 1958 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Lizzie Borden may have been the most infamous of America’s female killers, but she certainly wasn’t the only woman to dispose of inconvenient family, friends, or strangers. She wasn’t even the most prolific American murderess. That honor probably goes to Belle Gunness, a Norwegian immigrant suspected of killing more than forty people — including two husbands and several suitors — in Illinois and Indiana at the turn of the 20th Century. When authorities began investigating disappearances, Gunness herself disappeared … after setting up a hired hand to take the fall for arson that burned her farmhouse to the ground with her three young children and the headless body of an unidentifiable woman inside.
(Image: Belle Gunness and three of her children)
My debut novel, Prodigal Gun, bowed today. I am just tickled as all-get-out about that. Thanks to Livia Washburn Reasoner and Cheryl Pierson for taking a chance on an unknown author and for doing an outstanding job of putting the book together. Livia’s cover captures the characters, the setting, and the essence of the story beautifully, and Cheryl is an editing goddess (except for the occasional comma fight, but we both emerged unscarred).
Folks who know me will tell you I’m hardly ever serious (except about those dang commas), but I want to break with tradition for just a moment.
For twenty-three years, I was privileged to share life with a loving, generous man. Lee was so proud of all the anthologies with my name on the cover, and I think he was more excited than I about the publication of my first novel.
Sadly, he didn’t live to see the dream fulfilled. Lee died in June.
To honor Lee’s memory, all royalties from the sale of Prodigal Gun will go to charity. He would have liked that.
All right—enough of the seriousness. On to details about the book.
A dangerous man. A desperate woman. A love no war could kill.
Widowed rancher Jessie Caine buried her heart with the childhood sweetheart Yankees killed on a distant battlefield. Sixteen years later, as a Texas range war looms and hired guns arrive to pursue a wealthy carpetbagger’s agenda, Jessie discovers the only man she ever loved isn’t dead.
At least not yet.
Embittered by a brother’s betrayal, notorious gunman Calhoun is a dangerous man, come home to do an unsavory job. A bushwhacker’s bullet nearly takes his life on Jessie’s land, trapping him in a standoff between the past he tried to bury and the infamy he never will. One taste of the only woman he ever loved puts more than his life and her ranch in the crossfire.
With a price on his head, a debt to a wealthy employer around his neck, and a defiant woman tugging at his heart, Calhoun’s guns may not be enough to keep him from the grave. Caught between his enemies and hers, Jessie faces an agonizing choice: Which of her dreams will die?
A red-tailed hawk circled in the cloudless sky, dipping one wing in a silent salute before plunging to the earth like a bullet. Twenty feet from the gelding’s hooves, a jackrabbit barely had time to shriek.
The horse tossed his head and danced a few steps. Calhoun pressed his knees against the saddle and drew the slack from the reins. “Easy, fella.” He patted the chestnut’s neck. “You’re too big for him to carry off.”
Tugging the brim of his Stetson closer to his eyes to block the afternoon glare, Calhoun settled into a lazy slouch. Texas hadn’t changed—still big and open and empty. A man could ride for days with no company but his own.
He scanned the surrounding terrain. Rocks and scrub littered the sand on both sides of the dry wash. Occasional stands of oak and mesquite interrupted the grama grass and prickly pear toward the skyline, but nothing moved. No insects or reptiles. No birds. Not even a breeze. Only the gelding’s hooves thudding against parched dirt and the creak of saddle leather violated the silence.
Too still. Too quiet. Too…empty. Unease had dogged him for the past six months, ever since the trouble in Kansas. Now, deep in the Texas Hill Country, an army of ants crawled the fringes of his nerves.
Someone hunted the hunter. Who? His gaze darted from sand to scrub to rock. “Show yourself, you son of a bitch.”
The horse’s ears swiveled to catch the mutter. Good God, you’re talkin’ to yourself.
Rubbing eyes dried by heat and fatigue, he sucked a lungful of scalding air. Two weeks of hard travel could prey on a man’s mind. Both he and the horse could use a brief rest. If memory served, a watering hole and some blessed shade lay just over the next rise.
A familiar rancor swelled in his chest. Some memories persisted despite a man’s best effort to forget.
Boggs better have a damn good reason for yanking him away from the high-dollar comfort of Miss Lavinia’s in Silver City. A wry twist pinched one corner of Calhoun’s lips. Now there was a memory to savor. The heat in New Mexico Territory could burn a man clear to his bones without leaving a mark.
Wildfire in Texas left scars.
“So how’s what’s-his-name?” Even through the phone, my brother sounded distracted.
“What’s-his-name? You mean my significant other?” I asked.
“No, no. Not Crabby. The little one—you know, uh… Oh, the Mexican hairless!”
I get a kick out of my brother’s self-exasperation. It’s so cute to watch Mr. Cool lash himself to the mast with his own tongue.
For some reason this time I was more amused than usual. Some of the iced tea ended up on my shirt, and some ended up across the room. “Did you just say ‘Mexican hairless?’” I couldn’t suppress a chuckle.
Dog raised his head from the couch, his ears standing at attention and displeasure in his eyes.
“You know who I mean,” Brother informed me. “That little dog thing you have. Never mind. I don’t care anyway. Gotta go. Bye.”
“‘Mexican hairless?’” Dog cocked his head and raised one eyebrow. “What kind of thing is that to say?”
“It’s an antiquated term for Chihuahua,” I told him.
“It’s rude.” He scowled. “Clearly it’s incorrect, and it’s ethnically insensitive.”
“Of course it’s incorrect.” Halfway through the blithe comment, my mind caught up with my mouth. “Wait a sec… Did you just say ‘ethnically insensitive?’”
“I did. That sort of language is what leads to profiling.”
“Aw c’mon.” I groaned, rolling my eyes. “Let’s not start this. Surely you’re not going to tell me profiling is a problem for you. The only thing you’ve ever been ‘profiled’ as is small and cute.”
He sat up. “And yappy and nervous and ill-tempered and helpless and foo-foo—”
“I am well aware of the power of words.” I’m afraid my tone might have been a bit clipped. This wasn’t the first time we’d had the discussion. “But the only way they can hurt you is if you let them. Their power is all in your head.”
Dog snorted. “And I suppose ‘Mexican hairless’ doesn’t carry any baggage.”
“I said it was antiquated. That means hardly anyone ever uses it.”
Dog was not to be swayed. “Next thing you know, he’ll be insisting I get a green card, mow his lawn, and have myself neutered.” He stood and shook himself from end to end to resettle his fur, jangling his tags in the process. “I’m not even from Mexico. I was born in Conroe.”
“You speak Spanish.”
“You’re not helping your argument.”
“We perform a vital function in this country.” Dog plopped his bottom back on the couch, glaring at me down his nose. “We do the jobs other dogs don’t want to do.”
“I realize it must be a terrible strain on you to be peppy, portable, and precious at all times, but I assure you, The Man appreciates your sacrifice. Besides, it’s not like your civil rights are in jeopardy.” I scratched him under the chin. Usually, he likes that.
Evidently, this was not going to be a usual day. Dog sat back, taking his chin with him. “Hmph. Let my people go.”
“This people is going into the other room if you’re going to be such a sourpuss.”
He barreled right ahead as though I hadn’t spoken. “We’ve been stereotyped for generations, and it’s about time that sort of behavior stopped—before things get ugly.”
I was only vaguely disquieted by the suggestion, but I had to ask. “Ugly?”
He curled one side of his upper lip so just the tip of one fang showed. The sudden image of a pack of tiny canine guerrillas clad in bandoliers and serapes flashed before my mind’s eye.
I sighed. “Okay, then, what would ‘your people’ prefer to be called?”
“Chihuahua-Americans.” He slipped in a sneeze at the end.
“I’m not sure I can get the punctuation right,” I told him. I’ve never been a particularly adept sneezer. “But I’ll spread the word. And what do I get in return?”
He laid his ears flat against his neck and gazed up at me with big, sad Chihuahua-American eyes. “I shouldn’t have to make deals in order to loose the unjust shackles of society’s oppression.”
“And I shouldn’t have to feed you homemade treats precisely at 7 p.m. daily, either.”
“You do that because you love me.” He climbed into my lap and licked my wrist.
“Yes, and you should make the deal because you love me, too.” I scratched him behind one diminutive ear. “How ’bout no more scooting under the bed to avoid capture? I’m not as young as I used to be, you know.”
“Even when it’s time for a bath?” He turned his head so I could scratch behind the other ear.
“Especially when it’s time for a bath.”
Dog stood on his hind legs, placed two tiny forepaws on my chest and gazed directly into my eyes for a good, long while. I think he forgot we weren’t playing “Alpha Dog,” because when I spoke it surprised him. “Well?”
“Oh, all right,” he said, a bit miffed. “I’ll do my best to respond positively to the voice of doom. Satisfied?”
“One small concession from Chihuahua-American kind; one giant boon to bad knees.” I grinned and extended one hand. “Shake on it?”
“How ‘bout we seal the deal with a snack instead?” He committed himself to a languorous stretch and then hopped down from the couch and trotted toward the kitchen. His nails made little clicking sounds on the floor as he went. “I’m in the mood for some yogurt.”
Fiction writers face all sorts of fears: fear of rejection, fear of success, fear of failure, fear of the blank page, fear of running out of ideas, fear that this internal something that drives us to create is destructive, because all we’ve managed to put on paper so far is criminally bad… The list goes on.
Recently, I’ve realized one of the biggest writing-related fears I face is what I call the naked-in-church fear. The nightmare reportedly is common: There you are on Sunday morning, filing into the sanctuary along with everyone else, when suddenly you realize you aren’t wearing a stitch of clothing … and everyone is staring. “Oh dear,” you think, blushing scarlet from head to foot. “I know I was wearing something besides my birthday suit when I left the house. Of all the places to be caught in the nude. I’ll never live this down.”
Most dream interpretations attribute the naked-in-church nightmare to fear of exposure: as a fraud, as wanton beneath a prim exterior, as someone who harbors dark secrets. Psychologists often say the dream is an attempt by the subconscious to inform the dreamer he is being disloyal to himself by hiding something.
Regardless how emotionally close we are to friends and family, there are just some things humans don’t want others to know, and writers are no exception. Like everyone else, we pile on the layers of clothing before we head out to church. However, what makes good fiction phenomenal is the writer’s ability to “bleed” onto the page; to open veins and let emotions and visceral experiences flow through our characters in order to move readers with the same force they moved us. To do that, we must peel off the emotional equivalent of our Sunday best.
Right now, I’m working on a scene that’s quite a bit different from anything I’ve written before. It’s been a pure battle to make the words work. I’ve changed point of view twice. I’ve moved the characters to another setting. I’ve played with the weather, which has absolutely nothing to do with the action because the characters are indoors. I’ve even ripped out the whole darn scene and started over.
That’s when I realized I was wearing too many clothes.
Now, someone with a firm grip on decorum might take a moment to close her eyes, breathe deeply, and attempt to crawl inside her characters’ skin. Sadly, I am not someone with a firm grip on decorum. Instead of walking the more conventional path, I decided to confront the naked-in-church fear head-on. Why not? I had the house to myself, except for the dogs. I would show that fear who was boss.
Dogs (and pleather chairs, which can be remarkably cold, I discovered) have the most uncanny ability to knock ridiculous notions right out of a person. All three of the canine critics raised their heads, yawned, and then filed from the room.
Not one of my finer moments. On the positive side, at least now I have a visceral connection to a couple of emotions that ought to be useful somewhere.
There is much to be gained from confronting one’s fears. The next time I confront one of mine, though, I believe I’ll take a less radical approach.
(Image by ForestWander, a father-and-son team of nature photographers in West Virginia. Used with permission.)