Out of the Badlands: Part 18
We traveled more slowly the second trip out, practicing our foraging skills as we went. Some dinners were snake, and some were lizard. We found a rabbit warren—I remembered when I had thought the imported little beasts were a plague on the countryside, but now they were fresh meat, albeit lean and dry—and I made a mental note of their location the way a honeybee might mark a flower garden. Minus the dancing, I mean.
We unpacked the hobo stove every night and cooked the food for the next day. Faustus insisted on this, arguing that it gave off very little smoke, but I don’t know what difference that made, when we had to put out a circle of watch-fires every night anyway. He did have a point as far as efficient cooking went, considering the quantities we had to cook for the three of us.
The milk-ewe sometimes began to take a turn in the harness when we were going along a smooth flat area. I hadn’t trained her before because I didn’t to add an extra stress, but since she had become so good at leading behind the rattling cart, I thought it would be useful to train her in case anything happened to one of the wethers. One misstep, a lame leg—or God forbid a snake or spider—and we’d be down a draft animal. With the ewe at least comfortable in the harness, we had a backup plan.
We didn’t travel on the roads during broad daylight, not because we didn’t like the smooth traveling, but because the tarmac was just so hot. Still, we traveled parallel to the roads, as the straightest way to reach a larger town.
The houses we passed and investigated now looked like they’d been ransacked. Their windows were broken; the kitchens bare of everything even remotely edible. Some had been burned to the ground. Faustus became increasingly wary.
“Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” he muttered as we went.
“It was your idea,” I pointed out.
“I know it was. But I’m getting a really bad feeling as we go. Seriously, Tanya.”
“If they’re human, then they’ll be rational, right? If they’re rational, why wouldn’t we be able to reason with them?”
“Not all humans are rational, even when they’re normal. Or have you forgotten already?”
I thought about that for a while as we walked. “Mobs were always bad. Riots, I mean. Gangs. Cliques. My mother always said not to have three kids, because it will always be two against one.”
“And did she?”
“Did she what?”
“Did she have three kids?”
“No, she just had me. But she had a brother and a sister, so I guess she knew what she was talking about.”
He grunted. After another moment, he said, “I don’t want to stop in a house tonight. We’ll just set up the tent.”
That’s when I really understood now nervous he was getting. He enjoyed having a shower as much as I did. That night, when we did set up camp, I put my ‘teeth’ in. Just in case. We cooked on the hobo stove and went without the usual watch-fires, relying instead on Boomer to warn us if anything should approach.
The first evidence of people in the area came the next day. We smelled smoke—and not just any smoke, but the distinctive odor of charcoal briquettes. You don’t expect such a homey, put-a-shrimp-on-the-barbie smell to trigger wild alarm, but it did, and I was hard pressed to quash it down. Surely, if they were having a barbecue, they couldn’t be madmen.
A careful study of the area suggested the source of the smoke, and we made toward it. We parked the cart behind an outcropping of stone, tied the sheep and Boomer in a shady area, gave them all a drink, milked the ewe, and proceeded on foot with Bobby on my hip. Bobby was fussy; he needed a nap, but he was fighting it, curious about the change in our mode of travel. We approached the encampment, or residence, or whatever it was, cautiously. Faustus had an impressive cudgel in one hand, but I was armed with only a baby. My plan, in the event of hostilities, was to run like hell back to the cart, put Bobby into it, turn the dog loose, and prepare to fight there if I had to. Yes. I could see the flaws in that, too, but I couldn’t very well fight with a baby in my arms anyway, could I? And I couldn’t leave him behind.