He remembered the butchers hooking a team of horses to the hide of a steer theyd slaughtered, slowly dragging the hide off the steer inside out, pearly with tallow and white as snow. The small man wearing the black felt hat, peddling the red hen and the white hen, his jaw working as he watched as the horses tore away the hide.
There was Arbutus, a liquor-head, and from time to time hed throw himself onto all fours and bark like a rabid dog and hed howl from the end of his outstretched neck. It was after the dogs were shot Arbutus could be seen dragging a leash with an empty collar and after that he started going down on all fours.
There was the sleeveless baker in his stiff white apron gritted with flour. The baker smoked a cigar he never ashed but let the ash gray and curl and when cold it fell of its own accord. He thought the baker disagreeable and to possess violent proclivities.
There was a goat he remembered and a butcher wearing a bleached-white apron carrying a sticking knife pointed at the sky. The blade gleamed and he caught its light in the corner of his eye. A gaggle of boys followed behind waiting for their chance to lug off the head and guts. Among them was the boy who shined his boots and carried a tin whistle he blew and there was the legless boy strapped to a wheeled platform propelling himself forward with his fists.
And he remembered the chaplain that morning, his joyful greetings and feral sense for all human weakness except his own. He was Protestant, but in Mexico hed assumed the black cassock, cincture, and a dangling gold crucifix. The people thought him mad for how clamorous his expressions of faith. He descended on the wedding party and snatched a baby from a frightened mother and was lavishing its head with kisses. The mother bowed in fear and held out her hands in supplication, hoping to recover her baby before its soul was eaten. Napoleon did not like the chaplain and sus-pected him of simony and the selling of indulgences.
And he remembered Preston, a robust young man, his arms and shoulders and neck roped with muscles. Preston wore a very beautiful deerskin jacket that morning, elabo-rately beaded with long fringe at the sleeves and shoulders. He preferred riding a gray horse with long and rangy legs and that morning was no different. He was urging the pho-tographer to hurry in setting up his camera. He insisted upon a photograph of himself, Stableforth, and Turner on horse-back. Preston organized socials and the three wore military cloaks and silver cuff links and all belonged to the same country club in Delaware. They wore white linen shirts that smelled of eau de cologne and favored flowery bow ties carelessly tied in exploding knots.
The photographer stood at his tripod holding his hat over the lens. The photographer had a habit of setting fires with his flash powder and had managed to burn up a small por-tion of Mexico.
Why Napoleon consented to such an outlandish request, he had no idea, because for Preston, for what hed done, he felt only contempt. A flash went up, an explosion of powder and coming to-ward him through the rags of smoke was Preston riding the gray.
"What do you want?" Napoleon said before Preston could address him.
"I just want to talk."
"I dont know what I have to say thatd be of any interest."
The others watched their exchange, looking for some sign that might ease the unrest rippling through the camp.
"I apologize for the trouble," Preston said.
"You dont know what trouble is."
"Id give anything I have to make it not that way."
"You dont know the half of it."
"Dont sorry me," Napoleon said, dismissing the man.
The gray turned and back-stepped and Preston rejoined the men. Napoleon thought to light the cigarette hed been carrying behind his ear. He put it between his lips. He looked to the sky, a wind-gall. Black disklets floated in his eyes. He closed his eyes and opened them. Today would be weather.
Excerpted from Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead © 2009 by Robert Olmstead. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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