As the men began their yelling and swearing, Cookie made himself a little bed of cornhusks, with a pillow of folded gunneysacks, and lay down for a moment of rest. He heard the loud rip of a shirt, never a good sign, and the thump of a few punches landing in someone's abdomen, followed by the crash of a body onto a pile of chains. He clasped his fingers behind his neck and closed his eyes, letting the sounds fade from his mind, concentrating on the simple enclosure of the canvas walls all around him.
Soon enough the sounds of the fighting began to die down, and the men seemed to be resuming their positions around the fire. The forest became almost quiet again when the silence was broken by the twang of a Jew's harp.
"None of that tonight, bub," someone said gruffly. "Had about enough of that for one life." Then the cracking sound of someone punching someone in the jaw.
Outside, the horizon pinched off the last fragment of the sun. The darkness poured in more swiftly now, the half-light halved again, and the surrounding landscape was slowly erased from view. Soon there were voices and footsteps nearby. Cookie's quiet contemplation was ended.
Two men approached the wagon out of the darkness and handed Cookie a stack of dented tin plates and utensils beaded with creek water, which he took and stowed in the back. The forks still had grit on them, and the plates' faces clung to each other on thin panes of grease, but Cookie was too tired to wash them over again. When everything had clattered into place, he emerged from the wagon and went to find the officers for his nightly report.
Cookie located the commander and second in command seated beside a fire deep in the woods, talking and filing their corns. The commander was rumpled and fat and the second in command was clean and thin and they had a certain symbiotic relationship that resembled a friendship, but was not quite so simple as that. Or perhaps it was a friendship, but one that would only be recognized when it was long over and done with.
"Pardon me," Cookie said, but the commander and second in command ignored him and continued working on their corns. Cookie stood in place, his hands wandering up and down his wooden shirt buttons and under his suspenders, until finally he put them in his pockets to keep them still. The second in command seemed to sneer, though perhaps it was only a trick of the light.
"Well?" the second in command said. "Did you find anything? The men are still hungry."
"Yes," Cookie said. "Some wild leeks and a digger squirrel." He paused and looked at the fire. "I had the squirrel but it got away," he added.
"And what's in the larder?" the second in command asked. "Seven eggs and ten dry biscuits," Cookie said. "Plus a stick of jerky and plenty of salt. Enough for about a morning's eating." The captain raised his whiskered face, his nose greasy in the light of the fire. "And what will we do after that, Mr. Cookie?"
"I . . . I don't know, sir. Find more food, I hope."
For the past five days Cookie had been stretching the supplies as far as he could, thinning the cornmeal, shaving the gristle from the salted horsemeat and combining it with the beef gravy, hoping that some new food source would turn up, but so far none had arrived. Since crossing the Cascades, the game had been scarce, and even if it had been plentiful, there was no way to catch it. The men had already used all the gunpowder and ammunition shooting at buffalo and snakes in the plains, then at moose and longhorn, then at owls and bears, whatever the landscape provided to aim at, most of which they had left to rot. Every day it was getting harder to make ends meet. The tubers and berries Cookie found were getting progressively stranger, and the mushrooms likely poisonous to the touch.
The second in command got up and departed into the darkness, shaking his head.
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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