Tuesday, 15 November 2011


  Here is the first chapter of my new novel, 'Barren Endeavour.'

   Jack Gray wiped his brow with the dirty palm of his hand and gazed ahead at the horizon, his eyes squinting against the glare of the hot Indiana sun.  Having pressed on through the Iowa plains and struggling through the bustle in Illinois, weariness was beginning to set in.  With each day he felt more tired than he did on the one before and he had to dig deep to convince himself that he had not made a mistake in embarking upon this demanding journey.  He studied the landscape ahead of him, barren and unwelcoming.
   Drifters that he had crossed paths with along the way had questioned his judgement for travelling east, telling him that California was the place that he should aspire to reach.       However, Jack’s motivation was not the pursuit of prosperity but the ensured safety of the family that he had regretfully left behind in Nebraska.  He had a reason that was compelling enough to keep him going, but he had reservedly declined to justify himself to the concerned strangers that he had encountered.  Besides, Jack had his doubts that the west held the Promised Land that the desperate many optimistically believed.  It was 1934 and there was no way that Jack was going to believe that a place existed on this earth, and in this day and age, where everything that was so sparse everywhere else, such as food and employment,  was practically handed to you.  From his forty-six years of experience, he knew that nothing was given to you on a plate, even in a country known as the land of the free.

   For hours, the only thing he saw was his own feet trudging over the dry earth beneath him, the only variation being the pattern of the cracks that ran through it.  Whenever he dared to look up and ahead, the menacing orb hanging in the sky above punished him for doing so.  He endured the momentary suffering in order to gauge the distance that he faced, which he had ceased to measure in miles and now chose to denominate in time.  By his reckoning, the vast terrain that he caught occasional glimpses of amounted to what he preferred to consider as a very long time rather than being too precise.  He stopped to study his map, folded to focus on the area that he was covering.  He had such a long way to go.
   The canteen full of water in his duffle bag was a constant temptation that his strong resolve had enabled him to resist thus far.  He maintained that it was a limited or even a potentially last resort in light of the unknown scope for being able to replenish his supply.  He consoled himself with the faith that he had enough to keep him going until that time arrived.  So, he swallowed hard and pressed onward, head down, one foot in front of the other.

   Jack hiked over clear fields, trying to find a target destination on the landscape.  There was an austere lack of promise.  Daytime became dusk.  As he tramped on, night soon arrived.  At the end of the day, he was soon forced to concede to the setting of the sun.  It became cold, so he lit a fire for warmth.  Deprived of the energy to persevere through the darkness and becoming dispirited as the likelihood of success was absconding, Jack sat in the dirt with his hands raised to the flames.
   Exhaustion sometimes helped him sleep through the night, but not always.  He looked at the fire and knew it would not last long.  He hoped that by the time it was extinguished, he would be too asleep to care.
   At night, Jack usually found some rare foliage to rest beside and used his duffle as a pillow. He tried his utmost to conceal himself from the view of anyone that could possibly pass-by because he had yet to master the skill of sleeping with one eye open.  When he was asleep, he undauntedly threw caution to the wind and accepted whatever fate the night held for him.  He was confident that his journey’s purpose would compel his soul to fearlessly fend off anything that could dare to threaten his progress.
   The air did not seem as thin as it did during the sweltering daytime because the wind picked up when the sun went down, sometimes ferociously. When it woke him, he worried that a tornado was going to sweep him up.  Even the embers of his campfire had blown away.  There was no light.  Eventually, the minacious whistle would fade into the stark blackness that surrounded him and he would return to his slumber once again.


   “Wake up, Donnie.  You’ve been dossing long enough.”
   Jack tried to open his eyes but the stinging flashes made his headache unbearable.  He blinked gently until he was just about able to tolerate his eyes being open and he saw double.  There were two men; the first was distinct, whilst the other was translucent and spectral, pacing around the barn. 
   “Wakey wakey,” the stranger persisted.  He was clapping his hands, much to Jack’s annoyance.  “I’d throw a bucket of dog soup in your face if it wasn’t such a waste.  My, you must take so much for granted still.”
   Jack was lying on the floor in the middle of his barn, his hands tied behind his back with a thick rope.  He shuffled his wrists and realised immediately that he would not be able to free himself.  He closed his eyes again in an attempt to ease his pain.
   “Donnie,” the man shouted, angered at Jack’s inability to pay attention.
   “You’ve got me mixed up with somebody else,” Jack managed to say, desperately trying not to throw up.  “My name’s not Donnie.”
   Just about the last thing that Jack could remember was his intention to chop firewood in the barn, a decision he reached whilst finishing up supper at the kitchen table.  The last time he remembered seeing his assailant had been earlier that day when he had arrived at the farm looking for work.  Jack had become accustomed to drifters showing up at his door begging for work, so, like the other hoboes before him, this stranger had been turned away.  The past few years had not been kind to his family.  The drought had practically ruined them and they were struggling to make ends meet as it was.
   “I wasn’t sure whether it was you when I first saw you this morning,” the stranger said.  “But now I’m sure.  You just got fat, some would say pretty rugged compared to the old days.”
   Jack looked at him and saw that he was a menacingly large man with a bald head, craggy face and an unkempt red beard.
   “I swear,” Jack interjected, “whoever you think I am, I’m not.”
   “It must be four, no, five years since you made tracks and left me to take the rap.  Patsy or not, you know you can’t reason with the family when it comes to being a chisel.  I had no choice but to split because of you.”
   Jack clenched his teeth with frustration and screwed up his eyes before unleashing an effort to clarify the misunderstanding.  “My name is Jack Gray and I’ve been a farmer all my life.  I don’t know who you are and I don’t care to know.  If you untie me now and go, we’ll leave it at that.”
   The stranger kicked Jack hard in the face, enraged by his persistent insolence.
   “I’m Henry Dobbs, and don’t pretend to know otherwise, Donnie Mcnulty,” he yelled.  “Is that what you did with the money?  You bought a farm?”
   Dobbs kicked Jack again.
   “Please,” Jack squealed. 
   “I couldn’t stay around after you fled.  You know what would have happened to me, Donnie.  So, I had to move to Jersey of all places, and I had to look for work.  I had to move out of the city, for Pete’s sake.  There’s not much going on, eventually I come home one night after a day looking for a job and I find my wife and kids sitting outside on the street.  The bank had cleared the house and padlocked the door, Donnie.  You son of a bitch, I lost everything because of you.  And now I find you here, living it up on your own plot in the middle of nowhere.  Donnie Goddamn Mcnulty.”


   When Jack woke suddenly from his dream it was morning.  It was already unbearably hot, even in the shade of the tree that he had slept under.  The inside of his mouth was parched with a bitter taste that he washed away with a couple of sparely sips from his canteen.  He rose to his feet and shielded his eyes to gaze at the horizon in the direction that he intended to follow that day.  With a sigh, he wondered how long it would take him to pick up Henry Dobbs’ trail.

   After a few hours walking into the day, Jack happened upon a fenced-off area of land, which bore many of the familiar signs of a farm that had suffered greatly from the recently disastrous climate.  He reached down and passed his palm over the soil.  The dusty powder fell through his fingers as he lifted a handful to inspect.  Scanning his surroundings from his squatted position, Jack determined that the farm was deserted.  He saw an empty pen that would have once contained the farm’s animals in the foreground of a timber-built house, within which he hoped he would find water and food to replenish his supply.
   Exhaustion hit him suddenly as he forced open the gate to get past the fence.  He was spurred on by the prospect of finding something useful in the house.  His footsteps kicked up dust as he stumbled forward, barely able to stay upright.     When he stopped to catch his breath, he heard a clicking sound that made him freeze.
   The sound was unmistakable and he was immediately too frightened to turn and face its source.  Someone nearby had cocked their rifle and it was probably aimed in his direction.     The only sound that he could hear as he froze was his own shallow breathing until the gunman spoke.
   “Slowly, turn around,” a gruff voice ordered. 
   Jack obliged, shuffling his weary feet around to face the threat.     He could not understand why he had not seen him coming.  The man holding the rifle was lean, tall and looked like he was in his late sixties, maybe seventies, with a grisly beard and thick eyebrows above his piercing stare.  It was a sight that made Jack shudder.
   “You don’t need the gun,” said Jack.  “I thought this place was abandoned. I don’t mean to make any trouble for you.”
   “If it’s all the same to you, I still need convincing.”
   “I’m a farmer, just like you.  I’m just passing through.”
   “Oh, you’re passing through alright.  There ain’t nothing here for you, boy.”
   “I appreciate that you’re just being vigilant, and it’s exactly what I would do in your position.  But I’m not the kind of man that you’re worried I could be.”
   “You’re a drifter, ain’t you?”
   “I’m from Nebraska and I’m on my way to New York.  If I could just fill up my canteen with some water, I’ll be on my way.”
   A tentatively cautious atmosphere lingered in the air between them as they both pondered whether they could relent to trusting that the other would be capable of fulfilling their faith in human nature.  They both wanted to believe that common decency could prevail even during such disconsolate times. 
   “You hungry, pilgrim?” The bearded man lowered his rifle.
   “I could always eat,” Jack replied.

I hope you enjoyed a taste of 'Barren Endeavour' and continue to follow Jack's journey by buying the novel on kindle from Amazon or paperback or hardback from lulu.com

No comments:

Post a Comment