"Ahem," Cookie said, gasping for air, and when his breath had returned, "Fellows."
The men around the fire looked toward him evenly, mildly surprised by his sudden arrival, but not enough to show it, and without a word they returned to their business, staring into the trees, or scratching their armpits, or looking at the fire lost in their own mulling thoughts. They were a grizzled bunch, with creased, weathered faces and fat bumps of chewing tobacco wedged between their cheeks and what remained of their teeth. Most of them wore layers of buckskins and colorful beads, along with gaudy rings and pendants on top of soiled bandannas, each with a peculiar hat or contorted posture of smoking to set them off from the rest. One of them unsheathed a long dagger from his boot and began stabbing at a log over and over again; another one ripped a leaf into smaller and smaller pieces.
On the far side of the fire, a jug of corn whisky was making the rounds from one thick-fingered claw to the next, pausing at each man's mouth to tilt and gurgle. Cookie watched as the jug came toward him unhurriedly, rosy at its rounded parts from the throw of the firelight, and felt the warm prick of anticipation.
"Cookie," drawled one of the men from across the fire. He wore a shapeless leather hat and a sheepskin vest. "How 'bout some of that buffalo steak for breakfast tomorrow? With them fried cakes you make? In the beef fat. That stuff's good."
"Soda bread," the man beside him grunted.
"Dried apple pie," another one added.
"Yessir," Cookie said, keeping his eye on the whiskey. "I'll try my best." Three men down, one of the trappers had taken ahold of the jug long enough to gulp down two mouthfuls, and the man beside him was getting visibly impatient.
"Hold up, there, mister," the waiting trapper said to his neighbor, and grabbed the bottle from the man's puckering mouth, causing a large gulp of whiskey to shoot out onto the ground.
"Hey there, that's a waste," one of the other men said.
"He's drinkin more'n his share," the trapper holding the jug said.
"Well now no one's got it," someone else piped in.
As if on cue the men began rising to their feet, pulling their knives and clubs from their belts and squaring off for some mutual satisfaction.
After four months on the trail together, the trappers in Cookie's hunting party had come to hate each other. The way someone picked his teeth, the way the saddlebags were packed, anything was a good enough reason to come to blows. They hated each other simply for being alive, for breathing too loudly or not loudly enough, depending on what would allow them to hate each other more. To make matters worse, they were already two weeks late in reaching Fort Vancouver, the lone trading post in Oregon where they could change their pelts into silver, and their daily hikes did not seem to be bringing them any closer. The rivers they were looking for did not seem to exist, and the stars that might guide them were buried every night inside a thick layer of rain clouds. The one thing the men could agree on was the map they had was practically worthless.
So every morning they packed up their load and every night they strapped it back down, letting beavers and mink and muskrats scurry past them in plain view, unable to drag any more along if they wanted to.
"Get over here," one trapper murmured, shifting his weight from one boot to the other.
"You first," another one said, sliding his blade over his thigh. Cookie backed away quietly, moving toward the gravy train, where he generally hid out during the men's free-for-alls. He was not one for fighting, being too small to do much damage, and the thrill of the spectacle had worn out for him long ago. He climbed up the wooden spokes of the wagon wheel into the canvas tent, where the smell of dry wood mixed with oregano and wool blankets came over him, the reassuring sensation of a clean, well-ordered space. Along the walls, Cookie's kettles and skillets hung in tidy rows, and a heavy Dutch oven sat neatly in the corner. His knives were tucked into the shelves, and the matches and flint were sealed in waterproof containers fitted into the side flaps.
From The Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond, Chapter 1, pages 1-17. Copyright 2004 by Jonathan Raymond. All rights reserved. This excerpt is reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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