Out of the Badlands, Part 2:2
Operation ‘make the woman carry her own weight’ started the next morning. Breakfast, which consisted as usual of a thick gruel kept overnight in a straw-box cooker, was over. I was frying the remains into little cakes suitable for eating later, and Faustus had already gone to his workshop, when Sheila approached me with Bobby on her hip.
“I’m still hungry,” she said in a whine that set my teeth on edge.
“You had as much as I did. I know, because I dished up. You’ve had enough to work on until lunchtime.”
“But I’m still hungry!”
I turned to face her. “Yes. I don’t see why that means you should get more than the rest of us. You have to go do your morning tasks. If you do them to my satisfaction, I’ll be happy to get you some lunch.”
She frowned. “What if you’re not satisfied?”
“Then you’ll get really hungry. I’m tired of feeling like you’ve added to my work around here rather than shouldering some of it. I’m not here to take care of you. I have enough work to do, taking care of Bobby, myself, Faustus, and the animals.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Fine then,” she said, thrusting Bobby at me. “You take care of him. I guess I have manual labor to do, or something.” She stomped out of the house, destination unknown.
Yeah. That went really well. Bobby didn’t understand. He began to cry and twist in my arms, and all things considered, I didn’t want to wrestle him so close to the frying pan or the stove. He was so mobile now that I despaired how to keep him safe. I had become extremely accustomed to being able to hand him off to Sheila
I finished the cakes as quickly as I could in between keeping Bobby corralled, and then carried him, squealing and wiggling, out to the shop to talk to Faustus.
“Hey,” he said, pausing in his effort to assemble a second cart.
“I told her. She gave the baby to me and stormed away.”
“Nice. Where did she go?”
“How do I know? I was still cooking. I have to go back and get lunch started, or there won’t be any. Can you watch him for me?”
He grimaced. “There are some dangerous things out here.”
“There’s a hot stove in the house. We need somewhere we can put him. I wish we had a playpen or something.” Bobby writhed so much now that I set him down, but clung tight to my hand.
“I’ll put it on my shopping list. It will help if I can get this cart done first, even if I have to push or pull it myself. Speaking of which, how is the training going with those new sheep?”
“I can lead them most of the time now. Not too many sudden explosions and attempts to drag me across the corral.”
“That’s something,” he said drily. “And the new milk ewe?”
“Not much hope. She won’t let down for me, and her lamb won’t suckle if I approach too near. I get a little, but not enough to really make it worth the fight.”
“Another thing for my shopping list, then. Dry milk powder if I can find it anywhere.”
“Have you thought about the possibility that the people from the town may be looking for us?”
His face darkened. Stepping away from the cart, he swooped Bobby into his arms. “Yes. We’re far enough away that maybe—I’d like to say ‘probably,’ but that’s too optimistic—they won’t find us. There are lots of abandoned ranches out here, and those guys didn’t look much like bush survival experts to me.”
“What will we do if they do find us, though?”
“Then you take Bobby and Sheila and head for the bush. Have a pack ready, just in case, like you used to carry.”
“The captain always goes down with his ship. In my case, I’ll torpedo the lot first, if I can. So to speak.”
“I like the idea of them not finding us, better.” I stepped away. “I’ll go get lunch started and then go see if I can find what Sheila is up to. She hasn’t screamed, so I guess she hasn’t cut one of her feet off with the sickle yet.”
“Probably not. She saw me sharpening it after she cut herself the first time, and swore she’d pull the grass up with her bare hands before she’d touch the thing again.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.”
“I know. I didn’t say anything. I just went on sharpening.”
“All right. I’ll call you when lunch is ready.” I walked back to the house, scanning the vicinity for a glimpse of the other woman as I went. Not seeing her, I proceeded to stoke up the stove and bring water to a boil. It felt strange, though, being alone in the house like that. Strange not to have Bobby clinging to the leg of my pants, or—and again, it struck me how quickly I had become accustomed to her presence—Sheila hovering, puttering, or even pouting within earshot. It was quiet. Too quiet. I went back outdoors.
She wasn’t in the sheep pen, and she wasn’t in the stall where the new hay was stored. She certainly didn’t have the sickle with her, because I found it hanging on the wall where it was always kept, and when I carried it and the rake out to the pasture that doubled as a hay field, she wasn’t there either. With a sigh, I began to cut more grass, and when I had cut enough for the day, I raked and bundled the dry stuff I’d cut the day before. She didn’t appear. I began to carry the bundles down. I was hot, dusty, itchy, thirsty, irritated, and hungry. There wasn’t a lot of room in me for worry.