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Charles Teasdale – a.k.a. Caspar Tootsey, for a while – is one of four interconnected characters in Dominique Scali’s masterful, richly detailed, and just plain fun debut novel, In Search of New Babylon. Set in a deconstructed Wild West, In Search of New Babylon follows Teasdale, a miner turned boxer turned outlaw; Russian Bill, an aristocrat from across the pond turned outlaw; the Reverend Aaron, an amputated preacher; and Pearl Guthrie, a woman carefully balancing independence with dependence, ill repute with respectability.
All the main characters in this novel are invented, except one. All the towns are real, except for New Babylon. But if such a place were to be imagined, it would be a Wild West town where gunfights are fair play and the law bans only the lawman. It is a perilous place, where the beauty of the desert landscape takes your breath away with the same power as an open blade and a gash to the throat.
On that gruesome note, we hope you enjoy this teaser, lifted from pages 36–38 of In Search of New Babylon.
For Charles Teasdale, North and South were compass points and blue and grey were merely colours, concepts too remote to stir the slightest emotion in him. For him to choose one side over the other would have been as nonsensical as to prefer Mars to Mercury.
He was sixteen. The gold rush was over, as was the Civil War, and young Teasdale had given up lying about his age. He had also given up looking for work in the mines. Not once was he seen with his feet in a river, turning over the sand. Instead, he lived in the mushrooming towns of Nevada, a camp follower of the mining world. When the promise of wealth became a frustration, prospectors would look elsewhere, and parasites like him lost no time in following them.
He changed names whenever he changed towns. He would pick the first name that occurred to him as long as it preserved his real initials, for he didn’t want to change his signature.
He earned money building houses while the men were off digging, or watching over a concession run by some incorporeal mining company. He rarely took part in games of chance, but every night he allowed himself to be lulled by the sound of gamblers’ voices. Often, he would fight bare-fisted. He was still too young and skinny to fight for money. He would listen to the conversations in taverns, trying to pick up a European accent the way others turned an ear to the sky when hunting for birds. When he found an adversary his own size, he would call him a dirty Irishman. Of all nationalities, he preferred the Irish. Charles Teasdale always managed to provoke the other, but no one could provoke Charles Teasdale. He didn’t fight out of compulsion, but fascination. Sometimes he lost. Then, on opening his eyes, he would see a crowd of onlookers leaning over him, a well of light under a crown of top hats.
He rode into Eureka one winter evening with the intention of satisfying all his desires. He called himself Caspar Tootsey, a name he didn’t expect to have to keep for five years. In one saloon he spotted an Irishman called Shanahan. He planted himself behind the young fellow and tapped him on the shoulder with two fingers. Shanahan turned around, and Teasdale spat in his face. The man wiped his face with the back of his hand, grabbed Teasdale by the shirt, and threw him backward onto a table some distance away. A drinker pulled away his glass just before Teasdale landed on it. Teasdale got up and took a Bowie knife from his boot.
“What do you want?” asked the man, drawing a .36 Colt Navy.
The other drinkers leapt up from their chairs to get out of harm’s way. Teasdale dropped his knife to the floor. He stood erect, panting. He had clenched his fists, the knuckles wrapped with worn socks. He had the hollow cheeks of a malnourished child and enormous eyes, as dark as a sea bed. Teasdale said very little, but his eyes spoke volumes.
The man lowered his revolver and unbuckled his belt. The other patrons rushed for the walls. Most spectators were as eager to flee from impromptu fights as they were to step on one another’s toes to get closer to properly organized bouts.
Thirty-two minutes, three broken chairs, and a chipped mirror later, Teasdale cracked the other man’s skull against the corner of the table. He didn’t know it, but the young man he had just humiliated was a bemedalled veteran of the Union Army. As booty, he inherited his adversary’s Colt Navy revolver. Teasdale never wore a belt, so he passed a cord through the weapon’s trigger guard and tied it around his neck, an arrangement that allowed him neither to conceal the weapon nor to draw it quickly enough to have the advantage in a gunfight.
He left with his shirt and suspenders soaked in sweat and spotted with blood, and carrying his coat over one arm, impervious to the winter chill, although the people he met walked with their heads sunk deep in their collars. He entered the other saloon, passed the gun over his head, and laid it flat on the bar, intending to trade it for a solid night’s drinking.
A hand appeared on his arm. “Forget it,” said a voice behind his shoulder. “Keep your gun, sonny.”
That evening, Charles Teasdale exchanged his instinctive neutrality toward the great American schism for a bottle of whiskey.
Years later, even after he had acquired a cartridge belt and a pair of holsters, he still wore his Colt around his neck with the pride of a Catholic priest displaying his cross.
The phantom cavalry was a vaguely defined band of mercenaries with no paymaster. Its founding members were a group of Confederate veterans who had refused to lay down arms and return to the monotony of life on the farm or plantation, brother veterans whose thirst for vengeance was satisfied entirely by pillage, rape, and drunkenness. In its ranks were lads of twelve who were mere infants when the war began. They had never set foot on the battlefield, yet they shouted their hatred of the Yankee from every rooftop. When the weather was cloudy, they would set off to pick a fight with other kids, because, they declared, they had filthy Yankee faces, and they would burn down their stables because, they said, their horses gave off a Yankee stench. And when they contemplated the inferno and their bloodied fists, they roared their bliss between gulps of hot liquor.
From the moment he was recruited by the phantom cavalry, Charles Teasdale, alias Caspar Tootsey, became one of those kids – except that he never claimed to have hated anyone.
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