Out of the Badlands, part 2:3
Faustus brought Bobby into the house for lunch. Sheila had not yet returned. We ate in relative silence, and then I took Bobby in to lay him down for his nap. He fought sleep, as he always did; I sat with him, patting his back and studying the familiar, strange angles of his face as he grizzled and fussed. Through the doorway, I heard Faustus say, “So, there you are.”
Sheila said, “Is there any lunch?”
“Well, what have you done to earn your keep? I understand you weren’t out in the field anywhere.”
“I went looking for lizards. I want to eat meat. I’m tired of slop.”
“Did you find any?”
I patted Bobby’s back. He was nearly asleep.
“No,” she said, sounding resentful. “I tried, but I couldn’t catch any.”
“Not a very good use of your time, then, was it? There are lots of far more useful things you could have been doing.”
“Like chopping grass? I told you I won’t touch that blade again.”
“You could help train the sheep. They need to be gentle before we can use them to pull the new cart. You can watch Bobby while Tanya cuts grass. You can split wood for the stove. You can keep the stove fed so the food cooks properly.”
“I don’t like doing most of that stuff.”
“What you don’t seem to understand is that we’re not here to take care of you. We’re here to take care of ourselves. Either you help us, or you’re going to get very hungry. We don’t have spare food to give you while you flap your arms and try to fly.”
“I wasn’t flapping my arms,” she protested, angrily. “I was trying to bring some meat back here.”
Bobby stirred at the raised voice. I shushed him.
“Bringing back meat is my job.”
“Why? Just because you’re a man?”
“No, because I know enough about the bush not to get myself bitten by a snake or stung by something just as bad.”
“I didn’t get bitten. I didn’t get stung.”
“And you didn’t bring back any meat, which nobody asked to do, anyway. In short, you’ve done absolutely nothing useful, and wasted half the day. I had to take care of Bobby so Tanya could cook, which means I didn’t get everything done that I wanted to do.”
“Which is what you’d have done if I weren’t here to do whatever I’m told, right?”
“That’s one way of looking at it. But we let you come with us and live here, remember? You asked to come. That means, unfortunately, doing things that we tell you need to be done. That doesn’t mean things you like doing, or things you want to do. You don’t have any experience living this life. We do. So, when we tell you what to do, that’s how you learn.”
“Are you sure there isn’t there something…else I can do to…get you to give me something to eat?”
Faustus was more measured in his reply than I would or could have been, and I wonder if she’d have said it in quite that tone of voice if she’d known I was within earshot. He said, “Sure. You go march yourself out to the sheep pen, put the halter on the wether with the white spot on his ear, and lead him around the pen a few times.
“They sure do. Now, you go do that, and I’ll tell Tanya to go ahead and dish you up some lunch. If I get my other project done, I’ll see if I can’t bring back some meat for dinner, too. You’ll have to be extra helpful to her between now and then, though, because if I have to watch Bobby again this afternoon, I won’t get anything done.”
She didn’t say anything for a long moment. In the dusty silence of Bobby’s room, I kept patting the small back and humming very softly under my breath.
Faustus spoke up again. “This is the way it’s going to be from now on. Either you do things that need to be done, or you don’t eat. If you try to seduce me into changing my mind or sneaking you some food, you can bleeding well go back and live in the town. I’m sure the men there will be happy to feed you in exchange for what you just offered me.”
“No. I don’t want to go back there,” she said. Now her voice was very small. It had lost any hint of its earlier come-hither tone.
“Good. Then we understand each other. So, go handle that wether lamb for a while. I’m almost done building the cart, although I’ll have to go get some tires, and that means I might be gone for a day or two. After that, we’ll be able to teach the sheep to pull it. I’ve a mind we could use them to haul the hay in, too. No more carrying the bundles in your arms. How does that sound?”
“Better,” she said, again very small. Now that he mentioned it, I liked the sound of it too, although the mental image I had of hay wagons involved big patient draft horses standing with one hind leg cocked, not a couple of wooly sheep.
“Good. Now for dinner, I’ll need to see a good stack of wood split small, the smaller the better to get the most use out of the wood, since we have to cut every single tree and log by hand with an axe. We can’t afford to waste a single chip or shaving.”
Bobby was asleep, a little bubble on his lower lip as he breathed steadily. I stayed where I was, not wanting to risk waking him, or walking out into the scene in the kitchen and maybe upsetting the moment that Faustus seemed to have so well in hand.
“All right,” she said finally. I heard her footsteps cross the kitchen, and then the door clunked shut behind her.
Bobby stirred slightly with a squeak at the sound, but settled again as I continued patting him. After another moment, I eased off the bed, moved a couple of high-backed chairs against the bed as a barrier to him falling onto the floor, and slipped from the room.
Faustus was at the window, watching toward the sheep pen, hands clasped at his lower back.
“I’d be amused if it weren’t so deadly serious,” he said as I approached. “Oh look. She’s caught the one. I hope she can hang on.”
“He’s the tamer of the two.”
“She was really out trying to catch lizards? I wish I’d seen that.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe she took a nap somewhere. It doesn’t matter. Hunger’s a remarkable motivational tool. I’ll lock up the rest of the food, though. I won’t put it past her to decide that if we won’t feed her, she’ll just cook for herself.
I watched as Sheila fought the wether, pitting her will against his, trying to force him to walk on the lead rope. When it continued to plant all four of its legs, balking like a mule, she lost her temper and flailed at it with the end of the rope. That was a mistake: it sprang into the air, yanking the rope free, and fled at full speed across the pen. She stumbled and fell, landing on hands and knees on the dropping-strewn earth. Scrabbling to her feet, she ran after it, stooping for the rope as it slithered out of her grasp. I couldn’t even laugh. I was going to have to undo all the damage she was doing to the trust I’d spent so much time trying to cultivate in that lamb.
“She’s still flapping her arms and trying to fly,” Faustus said, drily.
“I don’t understand. She was reasonably okay until today.”
“She wasn’t. You’ve been building up a head of steam for a while. She’s been subtly pushing back. It could be worse.”
“What are you hoping to accomplish, sending her out to work with the sheep? She doesn’t have any rapport with animals.”
“When she comes back in, she’s going to be grateful as hell to eat anything you put in front of her, so let’s make sure it’s something decent. And then she’ll be grateful to take care of Bobby. But she can get some wood split while he’s napping.”
“If this doesn’t work, I’d like to know what we’re going to with her.”
“She’s always free to leave,” he said, bluntly. “And speaking of which, I have other work to do, so I guess I’ll get back out there and get at it. I’ve seen a couple of feral cats around recently. I’ll see if I can snare one. Where there’s one, there will be a lot more. The last thing we need is to have those things killing off all the local wildlife.”
“I remember a time when I’d have recoiled at the very thought. Now I think, hey, meat!”
“Funny how that happens.” He turned to me, leaned down for a kiss. “I won’t go for bike tires until the tension between you and she eases off, okay?”
He went out, and I began putting together a lunch for Sheila that was, as far as I was concerned, better than she deserved. If Faustus wanted to play ‘bad cop,’ then I guessed I had to be the good cop, chief cook and bottle-washer. I hoped it worked.