"I'm Henry," the man said. "Been walkin in this durn forest all night. Reckon I might just stay here awhile."
Cookie could almost hear the thick foliage growing around them, tiny clicks and gasps amplified by the towering trees.
"Wait here," he said, and without another word he went to find Henry a shirt and pants, and perhaps a scrap of food as well. At the drape of the gravy train canvas he paused. The tents were dark, and the moon cast a bluish light on their peaked roofs. A snore emanated from the commander's flap, and stony silence from the others. Cookie ducked inside and seized a flannel shirt and a pair of woolen pants from his own rucksack, and located a cold biscuit and the last dried stick of jerky from a tin box.
When he got back Henry was sitting just as before, glowing softly in the moonlight. He devoured the jerky, gnashing at it with his jaws and violently drawing it downward with the corded muscles of his neck, and then turned to the biscuit, barely softening its dry grain before forcing it into his stomach to join the meat. When that was done, he wiped the back of his hand over his mouth and slipped his legs into Cookie's pants, which were a little tight, but which Cookie admired on him nonetheless. Seeing his own clothes on someone else made them seem better than before.
"Strange business," Henry said as he buttoned the shirt, but then he trailed off without finishing his sentence. He slouched his shoulders and weakly shook his head in an effort to gather his strength to explain. "Later," Cookie said, and led Henry stealthily from the woods to the covered wagon, where he cleared away a small space deep in the rear, behind a shallow wall of wooden boxes containing the crumbs of oats and the scraps of wood shavings that had once protected the shells of eggs. It only took a moment. The boxes were nearly weightless and easily rearranged. Behind the makeshift wall he laid out a bed of empty gunnysacks and cornhusks.
Almost before lying down, Henry was asleep.
Cookie watched him for a moment, Henry's nostrils widening and closing, his eyelids fluttering with visions. Henry's hair was a yellow nest and his face was blotched with scratches. His lips were cracked and pale. But the features of his face seemed golden somehow, lit from inside, and when his mouth opened to let out a breath, his teeth flashed small and straight in the darkness. Something in Henry's sudden arrival had raced past Cookie's normal defenses, and he hoped the odd man would stay awhile. Cookie went to awaken the second in command for his round of sentinel duty and finally made his way to his own tent. He pulled the woolen blankets around himself and pressed his head to his pillow. Nervous imaginings boiled inside him. He had plenty to worry about.
The stock of food was gone, not even a biscuit remained, and although he had not told anyone yet, their one chicken had been killed days ago by a bobcat or a lynx. Unless some food source was discovered soon, or the walls of Fort Vancouver suddenly opened before them, the fur party was marching straight into the jaws of hunger and despair. In addition, he now had a stowaway sleeping in the bed of the food wagon, without the permission of the other men. Cookie's thoughts crowded in one on top of the other and cancelled each other out, until finally, after much tossing, he fell asleep, his final vague impression before drifting off being something about the company's trust, and that now one more stranger was trusting him as well.
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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