Out of the Badlands: Part 19
The smell of whatever they were cooking literally made my mouth water. Sure, we’d been eating meat roasted over open flames for years, but charcoal briquettes have an odor quite unlike that of the wood we’d burned. The smoke smelled of civilization, of summer get-togethers with friends, of a time when all my friends and families had been alive.
Behind us, tied to the cart, Boomer barked, and one of the sheep bleated. The sound brought an answering exclamation from the little encampment. Two men—I couldn’t tell their ages, except that their faces were fully bearded—came around the rocky outcrop and nearly ran into us.
Faustus said sharply, “That’s my dog. My sheep. Leave them alone.”
“Yeah?” One of them said, pulling up short. His demeanor didn’t strike me as promising.
Bobby whimpered on my hip, burying his face against my shoulder. He didn’t know the two men, and he was afraid.
Both men turned at the sound, their attentions honing in like a couple of hunting dogs. “That your woman too? Your kid?”
“What do you think?” Faustus was tense. I half expected him to clobber the men at any moment.
One of the men sniffed, studying first me, and then Bobby, with a critical eye. He came closer and said, “Let me see its face.”
Uncertain of the wisdom of such an act, I complied, turning Bobby around in my arms. He struggled and began to cry, trying to turn around again and get his face back against my body.
“Oh. It’s one of them,” the man said, scornfully. “I’ve seen enough of them. I wouldn’t claim it, if I were you, but you’re free to waste good food if you want.”
Faustus said, “Right, well. We’ll just be leaving, now.”
The man who’d been looking at Bobby said to the other, “I wouldn’t mind mutton. Been a long time since we had any, ain’t it?”
“Been a long time since we had a lot of things,” the other man said, leering at me.
The other man said, “Long damn time. But let’s see about the mutton first. The coals are just right for a barbie.”
There was a race, then, a sudden harsh flailing and scrabbling of feet and legs and arms. One of the men shoved Faustus hard; the other brushed past me—perhaps his disdain for whatever he thought Bobby was didn’t extend to knocking down a woman and a baby—and then they were both running wildly toward the source of the bark and the bleat.
Faustus swore, got his balance back, and ran after them. He was armed with a heavy club, and he had good boots on, which was more than the two men had, but they also had a lead on him. And I had a baby. I couldn’t even run.
Boomer saved the sheep. I wouldn’t have credited him with such ferocity, but when he saw the two strangers running at him, he went all Cujo, leaping at the end of his rope that sent the sheep into paroxysms of terror, yanking on their head-collars and then, with a frenzied heave, freeing himself.
I knew he had teeth, but somehow I’d never imagined him actually using them on a person. He’d never been anything but affectionate toward us, and of course he was Bobby’s best friend. He was those two men’s worst nightmare. I saw all of this from a distance because I couldn’t even run after them safely.
Snarling like a fiend, he leaped in and out, avoiding kicks and curses, answering every attempt to strike him with a snap of the jaws. Some of the kicks landed, but more of the bites did, and while the men were distracted, Faustus laid into them like a seasoned Cricketer with his bat. He hit one of the men in the back of the skull. The other man, distracted by his friend tumbling to the ground, let down his guard long enough for Boomer to get through and rip his arm up something awful.
The man screamed in pain. In my arms, Bobby screamed too, terrified and uncomprehending. I stopped, watching as Faustus stepped in with his club. The second man went down, too. He didn’t get back up, even when Boomer worried him, biting and shaking one of his arms.
Faustus turned to me. He was gasping for breath and drenched with sweat, but at least he didn’t seem to be hurt. “You okay?”
“We’re fine. Are they dead?”
“We better hope so. The question is, were they living out here because they weren’t welcome in the big town, or because they were like us?”
“I don’t know.”
Faustus glanced down at the two bodies, and then at Boomer, who was still worrying the second one. “Leave it alone, dog.” Then, “C’mere. Good dog. You saved us.” He patted the dog’s side. “We should get out of here. But the question is—where to?”
“If we’re this close to the town, shouldn’t we go find out?”
“I guess. But to the winner go the spoils. I’m going to see what those two had in their little camp. We might be able to use some of it.”
“What about the bodies? Shouldn’t we bury them, or something?”
“I wouldn’t object to covering them with rocks, but it’d be smarter to pull them a couple of kilometers off into the bush. The sheep might do it, if we unhitch them from the cart. The smell of a decomposing body will alert anybody who passes along here. If they had friends, the less known about their disappearance, the better.”
“We’ve all seen dead bodies.”
“Yes, but not so many, recently.”
“Then let’s leave their camp alone. If we take anything, and then we go to town and somebody recognizes whatever it is—”
He swiped his hand across his face. “You’re right. But I’ll burn my wooden club in their fire. No evidence.”
He did that, bringing back a couple of small roasted lizards left cooking over the coals, and feeding them to Boomer, while I calmed and petted the sheep and got their harnesses back on straight.
In the end, we heaved the bodies onto the cart and then, with even the milk-ewe joining the effort in a makeshift harness, and with Faustus pushing, we moved away from the road at an angle for a long time, looking for somewhere to dump them. We found a cutbank, probably caused by the heavy rains earlier in the season, and laid the bodies at its foot. Then, stomping and kicking, we broke more earth loose. It slid down and covered them like they’d never existed.
We went on. I’d like to say that they never crossed my mind again, but I felt haunted. I also knew, if anybody really cared to look—and if no windstorm blew away our tracks—that we could easily be hunted. Horrible images kept crossing my mind as we settled down to sleep that night: memories of the day, and fear of the unknown tomorrow. I don’t think any of us slept very well.