Out of the Badlands: Part 5
The next day, we came to a road. The pavement was cracked; no tires had killed the plants that had sprung up during the rainy season. Now they were a dead, dusty golden fuzz lining every break in the blacktop, burnt to death by the captured heat of the sun. I knew how they felt. Once we were on it, I would have preferred going back to the scrub. The heat rising up from the surface was like being baked evenly on all sides.
We went cautiously, stopping frequently to listen, look and sniff the air. I didn’t detect anything that shouldn’t have been there. A hot breeze kicked up until I felt like I was in a convection oven.
“How much further? I need water.”
“Maybe two kilometers. You’ll make it,” he said.
I decided that if I collapsed, he’d have to carry me. Of course, he was right. I’m tough. I can tolerate a lot more now than I could in the early days.
We passed the first outlying houses sooner than I expected. The second one had an intact rain cistern. The water was foul, and we couldn’t drink it, but there are ways to deal with that. He went outside for some clean sand, and I jerry-rigged a filter. We poured gallons of water through it. The resulting liquid tended to be cloudy with particulates, but at least they were good clean dirt. We left it to settle, and continued on. My tongue felt too big for my mouth.
I’m not sure you ever get used to the emptiness. It’s eerie. All those empty houses, and swing sets, and the cars parked in front of buildings like somebody will come out and drive them away. You get used to the bones, though, and if you don’t like looking at them, you can burn them. I suppose you could burn the houses, too, but they’re useful. Bones aren’t. They’re just memories, and they don’t even look like anybody anymore.
I was wrong about the emptiness, though. There was something else there, skulking in the shadows between the buildings, lean yeller shadows the color of the earth. “Faustus,” I said, thinking he hadn’t seen them, “there are dingos.”
“Yes,” he said. “I know. They won’t attack us.”
“How do you know that?” I wished fervently, and not for the first time, that I had a gun. I didn’t have one; nobody did. Back in the old days, the government had confiscated them all, for our own good. I suppose they never anticipated we could do worse things to ourselves, even without guns. All I had was a stout metal leg I’d taken off a chair, a knife, and handfuls of sand.
Faustus shrugged. “They won’t. You’re with me. I recommend you stay close to me, though.”
That didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it didn’t seem a good time to cross-examine him. Re-settling my pack on my shoulders, I moved closer to him.
He paused long enough to pull a stout length of chain from a side pocket in his pack. It seemed like a lot of weight to carry around on a regular basis, but I’d have given a lot right then to have something like it of my own. We walked on.
“Don’t bother us, dogs,” he said conversationally. “We’re just here to get some food, water, and gear.”
“They can’t understand you.” I felt exasperated. What point was there in talking to a bunch of smelly wild dingos?
“So? They understand more than you think. They understand I’m not afraid of them. I’m not trying to hide or run. I’m walking and talking like normal.”
I was afraid, though I didn’t want to say so.
The dingos didn’t seem to care that he wasn’t afraid. Maybe they just smelled me and thought, oh look, dinner on the hoof! I glanced over my shoulder and saw at least four of them, trotting after us and picking up speed.
Faustus saw them too. He shoved me up the concrete steps of a building and then backed up after me. The dogs surged forward.
We had the high ground, and we were armed, but the animals outnumbered us. Those things can take down an adult Roo. We used our packs for barricades and swung at the snapping teeth, sometimes making contact but mostly not. On my left, Faustus flailed about with his chain like an old-time threshing machine. The dogs did serious damage to both packs, spilling their contents down the stairs, but we managed to avoid a similar fate somehow. I know I got in a couple good hits, despite the fact that my reach—even with the chair leg—was quite a bit shorter than his with the chain.
Blood spattered over the dusty sidewalk, but at least not all of it was ours. I think Faustus knocked a few teeth out of one dog’s jaw; after that, their enthusiasm waned. One ran away yelping, and soon after, the others turned tail and scuttled away, too.
I panted as I examined the one bite I’d received. I hoped the animals weren’t rabid. I didn’t think they could be—didn’t rabies make animals stagger and drool? These one just snarled and lunged.
“I thought you said they’d leave us alone!”
He was bitten, too. His jaw was set, face grim. “Sons of bitches,” he said bitterly. Then, in resignation, “You can’t blame them. They’re hungry.”
“I can too blame them. I’m hungry, and you don’t see me trying to eat one of them.”
He sighed and began looking through the scattered contents of his bag until he found his first aid kit. “I’m sorry. I misjudged. Come here. Let’s get these wrapped up. Next stop, the pharmacy in town.” He wrapped my arm before handing me the bandages to wrap his own.
Our backpacks were badly torn. A small town wasn’t the best place to search for replacements, but after a trip to the silent little drugstore, where we stocked up on antibiotic ointment—past dates, but I doubted the store would ever have another delivery, so we had to take what we could get—and a bottle of tea tree oil, which would do for antiseptic in a pinch. We treated ourselves to past-dates cookies and warm soda. It didn’t feel like a celebration. My bites hurt fiercely. In the old days, we’d have gotten stitches and all kinds of shots. Now there were only over-the-counter pain pills, not at their best after sitting in the heat so long, and prescription-strength stuff that neither he nor I dared use. Sometimes these things get stronger with age. Sometimes they weaken. Either way, we didn’t know proper dosages, and worried about addiction. I’d have liked to have some beer or wine, but the only option for either was ‘warm’ or ‘warm’. Yuck. Also, we couldn’t afford to be even a little bit impaired. We’d already had a taste of why.
We drank our fill of bottled water and found a store with a stash of dried beans and lentils, always worth carrying for their ability to keep, and then began searching house to house for replacements for our damaged packs.
I mentioned before that the silent houses were eerie. It never quite stopped feeling wrong to break into one house after another and rifle through their contents, even when I knew the stuff was free for the taking. The garages were hot, dusty, and stuffy. I coughed worse than ever, and the pain tabs weren’t doing much to make my bitten arm feel better. We finally found backpacks, though, one in one house and one in another. I armed myself with an aluminum baseball bat I found in one garage. It was more weight to carry, but I didn’t care. A bat felt like a step up from a chair leg. He contented himself with his chain. We retreated to the first house, where we’d set water to filter through sand, and shut ourselves in for the night. I felt claustrophobic, closed up inside walls after so long in the outback, but after the dog attack, it seemed wise.
We took advantage of the existence of sinks to wash up a little, using the filtered water. The water went down the drain, which seemed an extravagance, and then we boiled some of what remained and cooked pasta from the pantry before trying to sleep in the beds. I wound up on the floor before morning, though.