Into the Badlands: Part 22 (The End – or is it the beginning?)
I can’t describe the way I felt when I woke from the cold in the morning and found Faustus still not there, although ‘desolate’ and ‘bereft’ approach the truth. I didn’t have a lot of hope by then, but life went on. I had just stirred up one of the fires and sent Sheila to collect more fuel when Boomer barked, waking Bobby into an early-morning wail.
Boomer raced away. I paused where I stood, watching the dog’s form moving away in leaps and bounds. I saw his target, then: the familiar form of a man, his arms full. I swept the baby up and hurried toward him. By the time I reached him, he’d had to push the rejoicing dog away repeatedly with his foot. “Now, get down, you,” he said. “I see you’re hurt. I don’t want to hurt you more.” Then, as I approached, he said, “Sorry it took me so long.” He set down his burdens. “I had to lose any pursuers, and I was carrying this.” ‘This’ turned out to be, as if by some miracle of the God of your choice, two jugs of water, the powdered milk, a machete, and Bobby’s sippy cup.
I flung my arms around him, squeezing Bobby between the two of us and hugging him until he drew back in embarrassment, and I looked over my shoulder to see Sheila approaching. She seemed afraid, but I said, “It’s Faustus, remember? My man. It’s fine. He’s brought milk for the baby.”
“Has he any food for us? I’m so very hungry.”
“No, I’m afraid I haven’t. But we can make do better than Bobby can. We have teeth.” He took the baby into his arms as he said this, jostling him to try to calm him, because the earlier crying had still not passed.
“I’ll mix him up some. Last night he had witchetty grubs.”
Sheila said, “Babies will eat almost anything.”
“Actually, those aren’t bad. Cooked, anyway,” Faustus said. She shuddered.
I led the way to the little fire. “How did you manage to get away from them?”
“Well, you notice I don’t exactly have the cart with me.”
“Yes. Or the sheep.”
He sniffed. “Have either of you ever watched pigs slaughtered?”
“Other animals, yes,” I said. “Not pigs.”
Sheila just shook her head.
I began to mix up some milk powder with the good water, while Bobby grabbed repeatedly for the sippy cup, babbling wildly to tell me he wanted it. As soon as I gave it to him, he began to suck greedily. Poor baby.
Faustus continued, “The thing about pigs is this: you can take a litter of them, all from the same sow, okay? They’re siblings. Raise them together, feed them together. They’ve known each other all their lives, right? Then one day you call the local knacker to come with his truck. He stuns one and cuts its throat, letting the death throes help pump the blood out of the body onto the ground. What do you think the other pigs do?”
Sheila looked revulsed.
I said, “Run to the other side of the pen and stand shivering in fear, as far from the guy with the knife as possible?”
“No.” He sat down and pulled his boots off, knocking sand from them and wiggling his toes. “They rush in and start drinking.”
Sheila actually turned green. If she’d had anything in her stomach, I thought she’d have lost it right then and there. Even I felt a bit ill.
“So, I took a lesson from the knacker. The mob wanted blood—they looked like that kind of people—and I didn’t think they really cared whose it was. So I cut the milk-ewe loose, killed the wethers right then and there, right where they stood in their harnesses, and started throwing all our gear and dry foods into the crowd. It was pandemonium, but it was pretty effective. In the distraction, I was able to take the few things I wanted and head for the countryside. I didn’t think they followed me. They had fresh meat—”
“And all those beans and lentils,” I said, sadly. “And the water. And the stove.”
“Never mind that. We lived without before; we can live without again. So I came the long way around until I crossed your trail and it got too dark to follow it anymore. Wasn’t a very good night, I’ll tell you.”
“No. I think we had the same night.”
“Anyway, they didn’t seem to follow me. My best guess is, they wouldn’t know how to save their lives, which is fine with me because it probably saves our lives. And now we head for home.”
“Let’s fill up on the water now—save enough to mix Bobby’s milk, though—and carry the jugs in case we come across any more,” I said. “The sooner we head out, the further we can get before it’s really hot.”
Sheila said, plaintively, “I’m hungry.”
“Yep,” Faustus agreed. “So am I. So let’s get going. We’ll teach you about the delicacies we call ‘roasted lizard’ and ‘water-root pulp, boiled in a billy-can’. Speaking of which, if you happen to find a can lying around, pick it up. We’re going to need it.”
We walked into the badlands, heading home with the clothes on our back, Boomer and Sheila at our heels, and Bobby on my hip. We had no sheep, no cart, no food, and no known source of water between where we were and our house. We would survive, though. We were that kind of people.