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       The Hunger, p.1

           Alma Katsu
 
The Hunger


  ALSO BY ALMA KATSU

  The Taker

  The Reckoning

  The Descent

  G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS

  Publishers Since 1838

  An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

  375 Hudson Street

  New York, New York 10014

  Copyright © 2018 by Alma Katsu and Glasstown Entertainment, LLC

  Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Name: Katsu, Alma author.

  Title: The hunger : a novel / Alma Katsu.

  Description: New York : G. P. Putnam’s Sons, [2018] | “Created by Paper Lantern Lit.”

  Identifiers: LCCN 2017019689 | ISBN 9780735212510 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780735212527 (ebook)

  Subjects: LCSH: Donner Party—Fiction. | GSAFD: Horror fiction. | Historical fiction.

  Classification: LCC PS3611.A7886 H86 2018 | DDC 813/.6—dc23

  LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017019689

  p. cm.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Jacket design by Stephen Brayda

  Version_3

  For my husband, Bruce

  CONTENTS

  Also by Alma Katsu

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  The Donner Party Route

  Prologue

  June 1846 Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  July 1846 Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  August 1846 Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  September 1846 Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Chapter Twenty-two

  Chapter Twenty-three

  Chapter Twenty-four

  Chapter Twenty-five

  Chapter Twenty-six

  October 1846 Chapter Twenty-seven

  Chapter Twenty-eight

  Chapter Twenty-nine

  Chapter Thirty

  November 1846 Chapter Thirty-one

  Chapter Thirty-two

  Chapter Thirty-three

  Chapter Thirty-four

  Chapter Thirty-five

  Chapter Thirty-six

  Chapter Thirty-seven

  Chapter Thirty-eight

  December 1846 Chapter Thirty-nine

  Chapter Forty

  Chapter Forty-one

  Chapter Forty-two

  Chapter Forty-three

  Chapter Forty-four

  January 1847 Chapter Forty-five

  Chapter Forty-six

  Epilogue

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  PROLOGUE

  April 1847

  Everyone agreed it had been a bad winter, one of the worst in recollection. Bad enough to force some of the Indian tribes, Paiute and Miwok, down from the mountain. There was no game to be had, and a restless hunger rippled through their movements, left barren camps full of black, scentless fire marks behind them like dark eyes in the earth.

  A couple of Paiutes even said they’d seen a crazy white man who had managed to survive through this god-awful winter, skimming over the frozen lake like a ghost.

  That had to be their man: a fellow named Lewis Keseberg. The last known survivor of the Donner Party tragedy. The salvage group had been sent out to find Keseberg and bring him back alive, if at all possible.

  Mid-April and the snow was chest-deep on the horses; the team had to abandon them at a local ranch and go the rest of the way on foot.

  It was three days down to the lake after they reached the summit—cold and airy and desolate. Spring meant mud and lots of it, but at the higher elevations, it was still winter and the ground was a blanket of thick white. It was untrustworthy, that snow: It hid crevices, steep drop-offs. Snow kept secrets. You’d think you were on solid ground, but it was just a matter of time before the ledge beneath you crumbled.

  The descent was much tougher even than expected, the snow giving underfoot, sodden and slippery, full of some unearthly desire to pull the whole team under.

  The closer the team got to the lake, the darker it became, the trees so tall that they obscured the mountaintops and blocked out the sun. You could tell it had snowed an ungodly amount by the damage to the trees: branches broken and bark scraped going up thirty, forty feet. It was eerily quiet by the lake, too. There were no sounds at all, no birdsong, no splash of waterfowl landing on the lake. Nothing but the tramp of their feet and labored breathing, the occasional crackle of melting snow.

  The first thing they noticed when mist from the lake rose into their sights was the stink; the entire site smelled of carrion. The rich stench of decaying flesh mingled with the piney air, making it heavy as the group approached the shore. The smell of blood, with its tang of iron, seemed to spring from everywhere, from the ground and the water and the sky.

  They’d been told that the survivors had been living in an abandoned cabin and two lean-tos, one built against a large boulder. They found the cabin quickly enough, skirting the banks of the lake, which rippled under a lazy fog. The cabin stood by itself in a small clearing. It was unmistakably deserted and yet they couldn’t shake the feeling that they weren’t alone, that someone was waiting for them inside, like something from a fairy story.

  The bad feeling seemed to have wormed its way through the whole team, that unnatural scent in the air causing everyone to fidget with nerves. They approached the cabin slowly, rifles raised.

  Several unexpected items lay discarded in the snow: a pocket prayer book, a ribbon bookmark fluttering in the breeze.

  A scattering of teeth.

  What looked like a human vertebra, cleaned of skin.

  Now the bad feeling was in their throats and at the backs of their eyes. A few of them refused to go any farther. The door to the cabin was directly in front of them now, an ax leaning against the outer wall beside it.

  The door opened on its own.

  JUNE 1846

  CHAPTER ONE

  To Charles Stanton, there was nothing like a good, close shave.

  He stood that morning in front of the big mirror strapped to the side of James Reed’s wagon. In every direction, the prairie unfurled like a blanket, occasionally rippled by wind: mile after uninterrupted mil
e of buffalo grass, disrupted only by the red spire of Chimney Rock, standing like a sentry in the distance. If he squinted, the wagon train looked like children’s toys scattered in the vast, unending brush—flimsy, meaningless, inconsequential.

  He turned to the mirror and steadied the blade under his jaw, remembering one of his grandfather’s favorite expressions: A wicked man hides behind a beard, like Lucifer. Stanton knew plenty of men who were happy enough with a well-honed knife, even some who used a hatchet, but for him nothing would do but a straight razor. He didn’t shrink from the feel of cold metal against his throat. In fact, he kind of liked it.

  “I didn’t think you were a vain man, Charles Stanton”—a voice came from behind him—“but if I didn’t know any better, I might wonder if you weren’t admiring yourself.” Edwin Bryant came toward him with a tin cup of coffee in his hand. The smile faded quickly. “You’re bleeding.”

  Stanton looked down at the razor. It was streaked with red. In the mirror he saw a line of crimson at his throat, a gaping three-inch slash where the tip of his blade had been. The razor was so sharp that he hadn’t felt a thing. Stanton jerked the towel from his shoulder and pressed it to the wound. “My hand must have slipped,” he said.

  “Sit down,” Bryant said. “Let me take a look at it. I have a little medical training, you know.”

  Stanton sidestepped Bryant’s outstretched hand. “I’m fine. It’s nothing. A mishap.” That was this damnable journey, in a nutshell. One unexpected “mishap” after another.

  Bryant shrugged. “If you say so. Wolves can smell blood from two miles away.”

  “What can I do for you?” Stanton asked. He knew that Bryant hadn’t come down the wagon train just to talk, not when they were supposed to be yoking up. Around them, the regular morning chaos whirled. Teamsters herded the oxen, the ground rumbling beneath the animals’ weight. Men dismantled their tents and loaded them into their wagons, or smothered out fires beneath sand. The air was filled with the sound of children shouting as they carried buckets of water for the day’s drinking and washing.

  Stanton and Bryant hadn’t known each other long but had quickly developed a friendship. The party Stanton had been traveling with prior—a small wagon train out of Illinois, consisting mostly of the Donner and Reed families—had recently joined up with a much larger group led by a retired military man, William Russell, outside Independence, Missouri. Edwin Bryant had been one of the first members from the Russell party to introduce himself and seemed to gravitate to Stanton, perhaps because they were both single men in a wagon train full of families.

  In appearance, Edwin Bryant was Stanton’s opposite. Stanton was tall, strong without trying to be. He had been complimented on his good looks his entire life. It had all come from his mother, as far as he could tell. He had her thick, wavy dark brown hair and soulful eyes.

  Thy looks are a gift from the devil, boy, so you might tempt others to sin. Another of his grandfather’s pronouncements. Once he’d smashed Stanton’s face with a belt buckle, maybe hoping to chase out the devil he saw there. It hadn’t worked. Stanton had kept all his teeth, and his nose had healed. The scar on his forehead had faded. The devil, as far as he knew, had stayed.

  Bryant was probably a decade older. Years as a newspaperman had left him softer than most of the men on the journey, who were farmers or carpenters or blacksmiths, men who made a living through hard physical labor. He had weak eyes and needed a pair of spectacles almost constantly. He had a perpetually disheveled air, as though his thoughts were always elsewhere. There was no denying that he was sharp, though, probably the smartest man in the party. He’d admitted to having spent a few years as a doctor’s apprentice when he was very young, though he didn’t want to be pressed into service as the camp physician.

  “Take a look at this.” Bryant kicked a tuft of vegetation at their feet, sending up a puff of dust. “Have you noticed? The grass is dry for this time of year.”

  They had been traveling on a flat plain for days now, the horizon a long stretch of tall prairie grass and scrub. Flanking the trail on either side in the distance, sand hills of gold and coral rose and fell, some craggy as fingers, pointing directly to heaven. Stanton crouched low and pulled a few strands of grass. The blades were short, no more than nine or ten inches long, and were already faded to a dull brownish-green. “Looks like there was a drought not too long ago,” Stanton said. He stood, smacking the dirt off his palms, looking toward the far-off hazy purple scrim. The land seemed to stretch on forever.

  “And we’re just entering the plain,” Bryant pointed out.

  His meaning was clear: There might not be enough grass for their oxen and livestock to eat. Grass, water, wood: the three things a wagon train needed. “Conditions are worse than we thought they’d be, and we’ve got a long way to go. See that mountain range off in the distance? That’s just the beginning, Charles. There are more mountains behind those—and desert and prairie, and rivers wider and deeper than any we’ve crossed so far. All between us and the Pacific Ocean.”

  Stanton had heard this litany before. Bryant had said little else ever since they had come across the trapper’s shack at Ash Hollow two days ago. The empty shack had been turned into a frontier outpost of sorts for the pioneers crossing the plains, who had taken to leaving letters behind for the next eastbound traveler to carry to a real post office for delivery onward. Many of these letters were simply folded pieces of paper left under a rock in the hope that they would eventually reach the intended recipient back home.

  Stanton had been strangely comforted by the sight of all those letters. They had seemed a testament to the travelers’ love of freedom and desire for greater opportunity, no matter the risk. But Bryant had gotten agitated. Look at all these letters. Must be dozens of them, maybe a hundred. The settlers who wrote them are ahead of us on the trail. We’re among the last to head out this season and you know what that means, don’t you? he’d asked Stanton. We might be too late. The mountain passes will be closed off by snow come winter, and winter comes early in higher elevations.

  “Patience, Edwin,” Stanton said now. “We’ve barely put Independence behind us—”

  “Yet here it is the middle of June. We’re moving too slowly.”

  Slinging the towel back over his shoulder, Stanton looked around him: The sun had been up for hours and yet they hadn’t broken camp. All around him, families were still finishing their breakfasts over the remains of their campfires. Mothers stood dandling babies in their arms as they swapped gossip. A boy was out playing with a dog instead of herding the family’s oxen in from the field.

  “Can you blame them on such a fine morning?” he asked lightly. After weeks on the trail, no one was anxious to face another day. Half the men were only in a hurry when it came time to break out the jug of mash. Bryant only frowned. Stanton rubbed the back of his neck. “Anyway, Russell is the man to talk to.”

  Bryant grimaced as he stooped to retrieve his coffee cup. “I’ve talked to Russell about it and he agrees, and yet does nothing about it. The man can’t say no to anyone. Earlier in the week—you remember—he let those men go off on a buffalo hunt, and the train sat idle for two days to smoke and dry the meat.”

  “We might be happy for that meat farther down the trail.”

  “I guarantee you that we’ll see more buffalo. But we’ll never get those days back.”

  Stanton saw the sense in what Bryant said, and didn’t want to argue. “Look. I’ll go with you tonight and we’ll speak to Russell together. We’ll make him see that we’re serious.”

  Bryant shook his head. “I’m tired of waiting. That’s what I’ve come to tell you: I’m leaving the wagon train. A few of us men are going ahead on horseback. It’s too slow by wagon. The family men, I understand why they need their wagons. They have young children, the old and sick to carry. They have their goods to worry about. I don’t begrudge them, but I won’t be h
eld hostage by them, either.”

  Stanton thought of his own wagon, his pair of oxen. The outfit had cost nearly all the money he made from the sale of his store. “I see.”

  Bryant’s eyes were bright behind his glasses. “That rider who joined up with us last night, he told me that the Washoe were still south of their usual grazing territory, about two weeks down the trail. I can’t risk missing them.” Bryant fancied himself to be a bit of an amateur anthropologist and was supposedly writing a book about the various tribes’ spiritual beliefs. He could talk for hours about Indian legends—talking animals, trickster gods, spirits that seemed to live in the earth and wind and water—and was so passionate that some of the settlers had become suspicious of him. As much as Stanton enjoyed Bryant’s stories, he knew they could be terrifying to Christians raised solely on Bible stories, who couldn’t understand that a white man could be deeply fascinated by native beliefs.

  “I know these people are your friends. But for God’s sake,” Bryant continued. When he was excited about a subject, it was hard to get him to drop it. “What made them think they could bring their entire households with them to California?”

  Stanton couldn’t help but smile. He knew, of course, what Bryant was referring to: George Donner’s great, customized prairie schooner. It had been the talk of Springfield when it was built and had become the talk of the entire wagon train. The wagon bed had been built up an extra few feet so there was room for a bench and a covered storage area. It even had a small stove with its chimney vented through the cloth canopy.

  Bryant nodded toward the Donners’ campsite. “I mean, how do they expect to cross the mountains with something like that? It’s a behemoth. Even four yoke of oxen won’t be enough to haul it up the steep grades. And for what? To carry the queen of Sheba in comfort.” In the short time since the Springfield contingent had joined up with the larger Russell party, Edwin Bryant had developed a healthy dislike for Tamsen Donner, that was plain enough. “Have you seen inside that thing? Like Cleopatra’s pleasure barge, with its feather mattress and silks.” Stanton smirked. It wasn’t as though the Donners were sleeping inside; their wagon was packed with household goods—including bedding—like every other wagon. Bryant was a little prone to righteous exaggeration. “I’d thought George Donner was a smart fellow. Apparently not.”

 
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