Out of the Badlands: Part 2
I found an encampment where someone had stayed. The fire pit was small, tidy, and had been covered over, although I knew the telltale signs. I began spiraling outward, walking very carefully, until I found where the person had made a latrine. That, too, was covered over neatly. Good. A very good sign. I went back and studied carefully around the fire pit. Whoever it was had eaten snake. There are no non-poisonous snakes here. That was a good sign – well, better to avoid them entirely, but if you weren’t going to avoid them entirely, kill them without being bitten. I assumed whoever it was hadn’t been bitten, because they weren’t dead. That meant they were Aware, Brave, and Capable. That was my kind of ABC. I liked whoever it was, already. By the footprint, I would say ‘male’, large, shod – you have to be shod out here or the snake you don’t see will sink a tooth into your ankle and that’s the end of yuu. A shod person is a live person, assuming they don’t make other mistakes. That meant whoever it was also had access to shoes. Maybe he knew where there was a town. I liked that idea, too.
If he was foraging on snakes, he wasn’t living solely on food in the town. I hoped he might know where there was water. Not all the water supplies had been contaminated, although by this point, what the very short half-life of the weapon they’d used, you could probably drink the water anyway. If he was drinking the water, it was safe: I didn’t mind if he acted as a guinea pig—better him than me. So, I thought, I would track him and see if I could find him and keep an eye on him for a couple of days. If he saw me, well, we would see what happened. In fact, I expected a man who could see a snake and kill it would see me sooner or later.
I began to follow him. Tracking out here is harder than it sounds, because the ground is so dry. If this man was any good at all, he would try not to leave a trail, but with shoes like his it was inevitable he’d leave some evidence behind: a scuff here, a heel print there, a dislodged stone. I moved slowly and carefully until the sun began to go down and the light failed me. I still hadn’t smelled smoke or any other hint of human habitation.
My canteen was empty. I looked for a place to shelter. There’s not much out here, but I found a large stone to call home for the night, gathered enough scrub wood for a couple of small fires, and got my back up against the rock with the fire between me and the darkness. If he was out there, he’d see the light—unless he was on the far side of the rock, of course—but you can’t do without fire at night. I preferred whatever risk he might pose to the other risks in the dark. He didn’t come. I didn’t know how far ahead of me he was. The ground is so dry, you can’t look at the edge of something and say, “This print was made 3 hours ago because look at the edge, Kemo Sabe!” It’s not like that. Whoever he was, though, he didn’t come. I sat in the darkness and shaved thin pieces from the water root into a bowl, and then I minced them and held the bowl under my chin, squeezing handfuls of the pulp in my fist and dribbling the juice down my thumb into my mouth. It doesn’t taste good, but I don’t care. Water is life. The root was large and plump: after I drank what I wanted, I squeezed the rest into the canteen for later.
I got my wool blanket out, wrapped up in it, fed a little more wood to the fires, and took advantage of the protection they afforded—the first from the night’s chill air and the biting insects, and the second from the prowling creatures that wouldn’t have turned their noses up at fresh meat—and got a couple of hours of sleep.