It's amazing how a man can feel more at home in the wide open desert than he can in his own house. Then again, I never really had a house. The desert is all I've ever known. The bare sand, the heat, the sunrises and sunsets, even the dangers that always come with life in the desert, I love them all. I can feel the sweat wetting the back of my shirt, the sand and stone is hot under my hands and arms, and the rifle in my hands is getting heavy. I don't mind. That rifle has saved my ass more times than I care to count.
One thing I was glad of when I joined the Rangers, they let me keep my own guns. I spent a lot of caps making that old Cowboy Repeater into the beast that she is; extended barrel and magazine tube, maple stocks, custom action, even some engraving and new sights just for kicks. I can hit a baseball at two hundred yards with that baby on any day of the week with the iron sights, and when the peep sight comes up and the wind is calm I can score hits at over five hundred. My pistol is a little less done up, but that longer barrel sure does help the stopping power. The belt about my waist holds fifty rounds for both pistol and rifle, along with the Bowie knife that I bought off a traveling peddler who said he found over in the Divide. I don't know how much stock I put in that, but no matter where he got it I know it's a damn good knife. The blade is sharp enough to shave with, which I often do, and she holds an edge like no other knife I've ever owned.
The sun is climbing high in the sky now and the heat is sweltering, despite the early hour. My vest is getting hot and the once white shirt they gave me is almost brown with dust and dried sweat. My vest and breeches are the same dull brown color as the desert around me, as is my hat and the browned skin of my face and hands, blending in almost perfectly with the land. I hold perfectly still and watch the desert over my rifle sights with quick, measuring glances. Movement draws the eye faster than anything and can betray a man's position if he isn't careful, although in the desert it takes only and inch of cover to hide a man.
Sweat trickles down my forehead, stinging my eyes with salt. I can taste in on my lips and feel it in the week's worth of stubble on my cheeks and neck. My whiskers itch something awful, but I'm not about to move to satisfy the urge. They'll be coming along any time now. We've been here for hours, me and the other four Rangers out of Nelson, and nothing is going to spoil this hunt now that the prey is so close at hand. The position is perfect, the wind is just right, and the terrain and chaparral offer complete cover and concealment. The Colorado River is gurgling along its course less than four hundred yards away, marking the boundary between the territory of the NCR and that of Caesar's Legion, and if all goes well those waters will soon run red with blood.
Five years. For five long years, it seems like those waters have been red with blood. Ever since the Battle of Hoover Dam, this little war has been little more than a staring match between us and the Red Bulls across the river. They raid our side, we raid theirs, both of us lose a lot of good men, and nothing ever gets done except for a whole lot of dying. I wasn't at the battle myself, but I remember what the older soldiers told me about it. By all accounts, it was brutal. Hundreds of men blown to hell and gone, on both sides, the whole of Boulder City laid to waste, and a wall of concrete and steel splitting the mighty Colorado with barbed wire and land mines, all over a damn line on a map. We stopped the Legion cold and kept them from bringing their path of destruction west, but for a long time it seems like it was hardly worth it. After five long years, we're still just staring over the river waiting for the other man to make the first move.
No one had to tell me about the Legion when I joined up for this fight. I grew up right here in the Mojave, scraping what little life me an the folks could out of bare rock, scrap metal, and skinny Bighorners. Wolfhorn Ranch was never much of a place, but it was home. The Rangers came in looking for good men a year or so after the battle at the Dam, and when people pointed me out to them they were only too happy to have me. Modestly speaking, I'm probably the best tracker between New Vegas and Cottonwood Cove and one of the best shots in the whole Mojave. I've heard tell that there's a man in Novac that might be as good, but I haven't met him yet to say for sure. All I had to hear was that they were gearing up for a fight with the Legion and that I'd be getting three meals a day, a blanket to sleep in, and all the ammunition I'd ever need, and I was out of that place faster than a man could say "sign me up." I taken this old rifle of mine and Daddy's old pistol and belt, said goodbye to my ma and Jenny, and went off to fight the good fight.
The Legion had been raiding over the Colorado for years before the first NCR trooper ever set foot in the Mojave. A lot of folks that I've known over the years had been burned out, killed, or hauled off in chains by those red-clad devils, and getting a chance to fight them was nothing new to me. I can remember six times when us and a few other families held off raiding parties inside Wolfhorn's walls, the last two of which I'd help fight them off and in the previous three I'd help load rifles and tend to the wounded with my mother. There wasn't much that an eight year old could do, but I did what I could. Out here, that's all a man can really do. This is a hard land that doesn't suffer fools or cowards, and more often than not it gives one chance and only one for those that live in it to prove their worth. Those that pass the test live to be tested another day. Those that fail become food for the crows and the cazadors.
It wouldn't be so bad if it was just the Legion we had to contend with. Farther to the west the Fiends are attacking anything that moves in South Vegas and even taking shots at Camp McCarran, farther west still were the Great Khans in their new stronghold of Red Rock Canyon, and now the Viper Gunslingers and all kinds of other gangs are supposed to be raiding and attacking caravans all over the Mojave. And just before we left camp there was talk of trouble at the NCRCF. That's the last thing we need. If those cons make a fuss or stop working on that old rail line, we'll never get the trains up and running again. Supplies are already running light and the pack caravans are getting into the habit of coming in late or being ambushed en route.
A glint of light near the river catches my attention, bringing me back into the moment. My every sense is alive and alert and my full attention turns to the long, open expanse of land before me. Someone had moved down there near the river and the light had glinted on the metal of a gun barrel or a piece of gear. I hold the rifle stock close to my cheek and ear back the hammer, holding down the trigger so that it would not click, and curl my finger ever so slightly over the trigger. The trigger was very light, almost a hair trigger, so I'm careful about how much pressure I put on the trigger. I hold the sights on the ridge just ahead of the shallow valley, waiting for a target to present itself. Minutes ticked by slowly and the heat began to rise steadily higher. Heat waves danced across the valley, light flickered from the river, and that gecko called out from the distance again. He was probably hunting for some poor mole rat with the rest of his pack.
Finally they came over the low ridge just up from the riverbank. Six men, four recruits, a veteran and a decanus, all dressed in the red armor of the Legion. Two of them had rifles, three had those old double-barreled caravan shotguns, and the decanus had a 10mm subbie. They were walking in the standard single file with the decanus and the veteran at the lead and bringing up the rear, respectively. I take a bead on the decanus, holding the sight on the center of his chest. I whistle the call of a desert wren, which was answered a moment later by another call from the brush off to my right. I take up slack on the trigger, take in a breath and let it out slowly, hold the sight steady, and then squeeze gently.
The rifle jumps in my hands and the sound of the shot shatters the morning stillness. I see the old armor on the decanus' chest jump with the impact of the bullet, instantly working the action to replace the shell. Four more guns sound at almost the same instant, dropping two of the legionnaires and wounding another. The decanus staggers from the impact, blood flowing from the wound in his chest, but then brings up his gun and begins to pepper the brush. I take a quick aim and fire again, this time splitting the black helmet he wears just above his goggles. His head snaps back as if he'd been pole-axed and his body falls limp and bloody into the soft sand. I work the lever again and shift targets to the last of the legionnaires as he runs for cover over the ridge. I take a quick lead, hold the rifle steady and squeeze of my shot. His knee buckles and he lets out a scream of sheer agony as he falls down over the lip of the low ridgeline and out my sight.
Instantly I jump to my feet in one swift, fluid motion and run after him. I work the lever as I run, feeding fresh shells into the tube as it go. The five bodies of his comrades are scattered on the ground, but I pay them no mind. We need that last one alive, if we can get him, to tell us anything that he might know about their plans. He's a veteran, so he might be privy to sensitive information that could be vital. I run past the bodies of the others and scramble up the steep slope of the ridge, holding my rifle ready to fire, and then I see him there on the ground less than ten feet from me.
His knee is shattered, barely anything more than skin muscle still holding his leg together, and his red tunic is dark with blood from a bullet hole through his stomach. A gut shot is a nasty way to go, worse than even this devil deserves, but with luck we could get him back to the doctor in Nelson in time for him to spill the beans. He's frantically trying to crawl away, hopping on his one good leg toward the river and using his left hand for support. His shotgun is on the ground and well out of reach, but in his right hand he's holding a .357 with the hammer cocked and ready.
"Stop right there!", I yell at him as I raise my rifle.
He turns to look at me, and I have to say that I've never seen such hate in the eyes of any man. He raises the pistol to fire, but the sudden turn has thrown him off balance and he falls on his back. He screams from the pain of his wounds and almost drops the pistol, but he's still looking at me with a fire in his eyes like I've never seen before. My sight is right on his chest and I could take him at any time, but I know how valuable his information could be. Don't make me kill you, man, don't make me do it.
"Drop the gun! Do it now and we'll get you back to the doc's and get you patched up."
He glares at me through those glowing embers of his, his teeth clenched from what must be agonizing pain, and I can tell that he wants to try his luck with that pistol. He wants it bad, so bad that he can taste it, but it's over and he knows it. I hear boots running up the bank behind me and I know that the others are up over the ridge, all with their weapons trained on him. I take a ginger step forward, easing up to him but with my gun still ready.
"Come on, now. Just give it up, man. You're caught."
"Ave! True to Caesar!"
Before I can stop him, he puts the gun under his chin and pulls the trigger. His skull erupts in a splash of crimson and pink, I feel warm blood spatter on my face and my clothes, and then he's gone. Damn it! Damn it all to hell! Every damn time, this happens. Every time we're about to capture one of these bastards, he manages to off himself one way or the other. Usually they slit their own throats or wrists, sometimes they do like this poor devil and blow their own brains out, and at least once I've seen one jump off a bluff when we thought we had him cornered. Some call it devotion to the cause or outright fanaticism, but I know better. Some of them may be that devoted, especially the younger ones that have grown up under Caesar's yoke, but in the older ones it's different. They're just so afraid of what their own men will do to them once they've allowed themselves to be captured that they'd rather die than face whatever fate their superiors have in store for them. After seeing what they've done to their prisoners, slaves, and enemies, I can't really say that I blame them.
It takes only a few minutes to police up the bodies and strip them of all the weapons, gear, and ammo that they had on them. There wasn't much. A few rounds of 20 gauge shells, a dozen or so magnums to each man, three shotguns, two rifles, four pistols, and four throwing spears, plus each man had a standard issue machete. These Legion guys love their machetes, and I've seen what they can do with them. We stacked the bodies in a pile and left them for the buzzards, who were already circling overhead, then moved out for Nelson. Within an hour we were past Tehatticup Mine and down the trail to the town, and before we knew it we were being hailed by the men on the outer towers. It was good to be back.
Nelson was just one of many outposts that had been put up after the Battle of Hoover Dam to guard and patrol the Colorado River. Farther north is Camp Forlorn Hope, the main frontline headquarters for NCR forces along the river, and to the south is Ranger Station Echo and then a garrison at Cottonwood Cove. The Cove is little more than just a camp with a few troopers and a communications hub. There's little chance that the Legion would ever attack that far south, but there was little room for error these days. The Cove had a dock, a comms building, and part of the old highway still led off to the west. North of Forlorn Hope was the Dam, and then at the farthest northern frontier was Bitter Springs and Ranger Station Delta. There was talk of establishing a new camp on Guardian Peak, but to my knowledge it hadn't happened yet.
We passed the outer towers and guard posts, then through the gate and chain link fence that did for fortifications. The town was in a good spot, although the defenses could be better. Ranger Gibson, our squad leader, went off to the command post to put in the after-action report once we were inside while the rest of us went over to the commissary to trade in the guns and gear we'd collected and to get a drink. There wasn't a decent bar closer than Searchlight, but the sutler here makes a strong homemade liquor out of prickly pear and moonshine. It's strong enough to take rust off an Old World car hulk, but it gets the job done. We all went into the store he gave us the usual few caps and a jug for the loot, and we all went to the nearest table and pulled the cork.
It was hot, too damn hot, and we were all dirty and our clothing was stiff with stale sweat and dust. Three days we'd been out in the desert, hunting legionnaires, and it was good to be back. I could use a bath and a shave and my guns needed a good cleaning since I'd run out of oil the day before last. The cook brought out some beans and biscuits for us and we ate heartily, all of us knowing that it would be the last home-cooked food we'd have for a while. It certainly beat jerky and Gecko steaks roasted over a mesquite fire. Some coffee would have been great, but it had been a year since I'd seen so much as a bean of it.
"You know," Cooper said after a few mouthfuls of baked beans, "I've been thinking."
"That isn't your strong suit, Coop."
"Shut up. Anyway, something was wrong with that last bunch over by the mines."
"Well, for one thing they came up out of the desert instead of out of the river. These last few months all the raiding parties have been crossing over at night or something and leaving the boats somewhere they can get to 'em fast if need be, never going too far from the river. This last group was different. No boats, no wet clothing, nothing to indicate a river crossing."
"No loot, either," Bronson chimed in, "not a damn thing."
"That's nothing special," I replied over a stale biscuit, "legionnaires don't carry swag with them very often. They raid, rape, and murder, then burn anything that might be useful to the enemy. They don't take anything they can't use themselves and Caesar doesn't let them have much of their own in the way of goods. They don't like money, gear or meds. Mostly they just take guns and ammo. I'll bet that most of those guns we just sold to Percy came off some poor fool they caught flat-footed."
"It still don't make no kind of sense. They came up from the south and left a trail that a blind man could follow, traveling light but not that fast. They didn't have much food on 'em and their canteens were only half full. It was almost like they had a base or a camp nearby."
Gray and Bronson both chuckled at that last part. It seemed a little absurd thinking that the Legion would have a camp anywhere near here, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed likely. Cooper wasn't the only one that had noticed those boys' gear was a little too light, even for a casual raiding party. We'd caught two other groups along the river, one of them not even across the river yet when we picked them off their rafts, and neither of them had seemed strange. That last one, though, was odd. Raiding parties usually carried at least a couple days' worth of rations and water with them along with ammunition for a good long fight if needed, but those men back there at Tehatticup hadn't been carrying more than a day's worth of food and water and were only packing along their own weapons and a few captured guns. I'd seen men equipped that light many a time, but it was always NCR troops who knew they would be back at the base before nightfall.
Ranger Gibson came in an hour later and joined us for a drink and a game. Gray took out his deck and we had a couple games of caravan with our newfound wealth (yeah, right), of which I came out with a good percentage. I'd always been good at cards and most men knew better than to let me in on a game. A few troopers had come in for their own drinks and meals by then, but they left us be. Rangers and troopers were two different breeds and didn't often socialize. Troopers were mostly poor farm boys and Hub kids that came east for the pay and the action or were conscripted out of the poorhouses and sharecrop farms when manpower ran low. They were good enough men for the most part, but they were different from Rangers. Rangers were born fighting men, many of them born on the frontier and brought up fighting off raiders, cannibals, and the Legion. We were better trained and much more experienced than the average trooper and those that didn't fear us just made light of us until they needed us.
Gibson threw back his share of the moonshine and played out his hands until he'd lost most of his share of the loot money, but then he started picking at his graying beard like he did when he was about to say something. We all knew something was coming and so we quieted down and corked the jug. Gibson was an old soldier that had been in the Mojave since the Dam and a man that we all knew and respected, so when he had something to say a man had best sit tight and listen.
"Boys," he said in that gruff tone of his, "I've got some bad news. We're going out again."
"Back to the river?"
"Nah, not really. I told Captain Parker about those boys we got today and he said he's been hearing similar reports from the ghouls down at Echo. According to the radio calls, they've been reporting some strange happenings down near the Cove. Construction, increased Legion activity, and some gunfire the day before last. Two raiding parties hit the station in the last week and they caught two more in the hills, all of them carrying minimal equipment and few rations. The Cap wants us to go over there and have a little look-see."
"Why don't they just radio the Cove and see what's up?"
"That's the strangest part. They haven't had any contact with them in over a week. Not a call, not an action report, not even a call for supplies or just plain old chatter. They think something might have happened and they need the best they've got to find out what, so naturally they gave the job to us."
"How long until we move out?"
"I'm thinking first light in the morning. Give you boys some time to catch some sack time and sleep off that hooch. I'll have Percy fit you all out with ammo and frags and get these clothes washed. I swear I walked in here and it smelled like a damn New Vegas sweatshop."
"Not like you're any better, Gibson."
"True enough, I suppose. We head out first light, and I do mean FIRST light, so all of you be ready. I the meantime all of you get some rest and have some fun. That's an order."
Gibson took another swig of the 'shine, then tipped his hat and was out the door. We all knew he was going straight to the barracks for some down time and one of his books. He kept a collection of Old World books that he'd collected in all his years in the Mojave, some of them not bad. He'd lent me a couple of them and they weren't bad at all, although they were mostly just catalogs and textbooks that had come out of old offices and buildings. He was one of the few people around here who still read for fun. For that matter, he was one of the few men I knew besides me who could read at all. I had never taken much liking to reading myself, although there had been a few books here and there that had caught my eye.
The meal went by fast and we all left caps on the table for payment, then went our separate ways. We all had our own ways of relaxing and unwinding after a hunt, few of which involved being sociable with one another. We were all friends, but there were some things that I all liked to keep to ourselves. A man had to have some personal things or else he would go nuts out here. I stood outside the commissary house and rolled myself a smoke from the strong tobacco I'd picked from the desert, saying good night to the guys as they filed out and went to their separate haunts. Cooper and Bronson went back to the barracks, Gray started walking toward the troopers' mess hall with his deck in hand, and me, I just stood there and watched the sun sink slowly behind the high cliffs on the eastern side of the river. All the yellows, golds, reds and oranges made the sky seem on fire and the cool evening air felt good.
To my way of thinking, there just isn't anything quite like a desert sunset. Noting, that is, except for my Jenny. Looking at the sin sinking into the horizon made me think of her and the folks back at Wolfhorn Ranch, working our little corn crop or her family's tiny herd of Brahman. I remember how her red hair would always catch the sunlight on nights like this when we would go down to the ridge and walk for hours on end, just listening to the coyotes and the geckos off in the distance. I can't say how much I miss that girl. If it weren't for this damn war, you can bet that I wouldn't ever be this far from her. If there was ever someone that I would marry, it would definitely be Jenny Weathers.
The moon rose up just after the sun set, for in the desert the night comes quickly and there is almost no twilight. The cool air rose up and felt good after the heat of the day, and somewhere off the west a couple of coyotes started their nightly chorus. The night guards changed shifts on the perimeter, sounding the watch from the guard towers, and down along the river there was the call of a Lakelurk. I hate those things. I've been caught down by the water by them a time or two and every time it's a pain in the ass. Better than being ambushed by a couple of Deathclaws, though. Those are the absolute worst.
I finish my smoke and rub it out on the sole of my boot, then take my rifle and the bag of goods I got inside and start down the ridge to the river. A high cliff kept anyone from getting to, or for the most part coming from, the river itself but one could still sit and listen to the water gurgling along its course. I found a good spot where I would have a good view of the surrounding area and where I would be able to hear anyone who was coming too close thanks to the thick chaparral and dry foliage. I broke off some branches of the ocotillo and scattered them around for good measure, then spread out my bedroll and sat down to clean my weapons. It took only a few minutes in my skilled hands and soon both rifle and revolver were disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled and reloaded. I took out my Bowie knife and gave it a few licks on my whetstone, although it was already sharp enough to split a hair.
I had never liked the confines of a barracks or a bunkhouse. I preferred the open air and freedom of movement that the desert allowed and the clarity of sound that the clear air gave to one's ears. I almost never slept indoors, not even at home, preferring to take my rest outdoors. It was not bother to the officers at the post, since Rangers were under their own command and it was rare that the regular NCR military were given authority over us, and besides that it was a good idea to have a good man outside the perimeter who could sound an alarm if trouble came up. I followed my usual habit of leaving my boots beside me, rolling up my gun belt so that the holster was raised on the rolled-up belt and within easy reach if it was needed. My rifle was at my side and was loaded and ready for action. Both pistol and knife were easily reached if the need arose, although the rifle was the easiest to grasp and bring into action. I pulled the thin blanket over me and slid my hat over my eyes, instantly asleep.
Dawn came too soon, as it always does, and from old habit I woke an hour before sunup and slung my gunbelt about my hips, wiped the night sweat from the guns and checked their loads, then shook out my boots to check for bugs or snakes before stamping into them. A few moments and I had collected my gear and was ready to go.
I went to the pre-chosen rendezvous point and found the others waiting. Gibson was there with his beaten up old uniform and rifle, Bronson and his tricked-out sniper rifle and gear, and Cooper and Gray stood off to the side talking and leaning on their repeaters. There were no words. A nod from Gibson was all that was needed to get us started and as one man we started down the trail and through the notch I the hills that would take us out into the flats below Tehatticup Mine. We went by no trail and no path, each of us stepping with the careful gait of a walker and the silence of a ghost in the darkness of the predawn hours. The night was cool and clear and we made good time, stopping for only a sparse breakfast an hour after dawn before moving on to the south. We saw several Mole Rats and Geckos on the way, but we wasted no ammunition on hunting. We plenty of food and were treating this as enemy territory. It was unlikely that anything had actually happened at the Cove or anywhere farther south, but many a man had died from taking foolish chances out here and we had no intentions of joining them.
We camped through the noon heat in a stand of thick brush, cooking our supper over a hatful of fire that offered no smoke. We started again after the worst of the heat had faded and made the last dozen miles or so to Station Echo. There we were greeted by a challenge from hidden sentries, knowing immediately from their raspy voices that it could only be the boys of the Echoes of Death. That was the unit that manned Echo, calling themselves that as a play on the name of the post and as a joke on their ghoul forms. Their motto was "When you hear us, you're already dead," a motto that they lived up to. It isn't easy to hide from a Ranger, and after the challenge was answered they rose out of the desert like specters that had never been. They were all in their distinctive khaki shirts and red bandanas. There were three of them, all with repeaters in hand, and all of us exchanged a salute and a nod before they escorted us the last few hundred yards into the station.
We came close to the station and we could all smell the acrid, stale smell of the Pit, as we all called it, a deep puddle of green radioactive sludge that had been there at least since the bombs fell over 200 years ago. Even a few minutes of exposure to the water would kill most men from radiation poisoning, although the Echoes supposedly used it as a water source and made their coffee from the thinner sludge. I you're a ghoul, I guess it doesn't matter what's in the water. My pocket Geiger counter started clicking away as we came close to the ragged walls of the post, as did those of the others, but we ignored them and went on. The radiation here was nowhere near the amount that would cause real harm.
We all went into the camp and they offered us coffee and some mole rat meat, which we accepted heartily, and the commander Ranger Wilson laid out the situation. The Legion had been at them another time since the radio call that had brought us there, being pushed back with no losses on either side. The previous attacks had left two men wounded in the post and nine dead legionnaires that had been found. The Legion rarely carry off their dead unless they are of high rank, so the count was more than likely accurate. Several rangers commented that they had hit more of the enemy that would have to be seriously wounded, although there was little sign that could be seen from the station and they had mounted no forays to search for sign. Gibson asked where the raiding parties had been coming from and the answer was always the same, southeast.
"I don't like it," Wilson said after he'd finished, "I don't like it one damn bit. All the raids come from the direction of the Cove and we haven't heard a peep from them in more than a week. We heard faint shooting from that direction last week, but that's nothing new. We figured it was just a river raid being thrown back. Now, though, we aren't so sure."
"Why haven't you sent out a patrol or a search party?", Gibson asked.
"We don't have the men to spare. I've only got a half dozen or so Rangers at this post and two of those are bad wounded. With the Legion out in force like it is, sending men out there would be little more than a suicide mission. You're the closest thing to reinforcements we've seen in two months. I sent for a dozen troopers with heavy iron and they sent you instead."
"Four Rangers over a dozen troopers," I said over the cigarette I'd rolled while the officers talked, "sounds like a fair trade to me. What's that Old World saying? 'One riot, one Ranger'?"
"True enough, Ranger Weathers, true enough. It's a simple mission, boys. We need you to just go over to Cottonwood Cove and see what the hell is goin' on and collect as much information about these Legion raids as you can. Best case scenario, you get down there and find out that there's nothing wrong at all and the Legion just has a tent camp or something set up somewhere along the river and is causing a peck of trouble."
"The Legion is always causing a peck of trouble. But Weathers is right, sir. If there's any trouble out there, we'll find it."
We spent the night in the station, taking turns on the wall to aid in the defense of the place if the Legion came again. They favored night raids and Wilson had said that most of the attacks had been at night, so we were all extra cautious. Cooper too his turn on the wall first, to be relieved by Grey and then Bronson. Gibson laid out our line of march with Wilson over a map of the terrain, and I took to my old custom of camping outside the post. I picked a spot within sight of the station and well hidden by the brush, nestled among a few boulders that had fallen from the cliffs behind the station in some bygone age. The spot was a good one, providing a good view of the valley and the mountain bluff that shielded Echo from attack to the west. The Pit was easily visible, as was the old ruin of the houses that had once stood at the place.
I laid out my gear in the usual manner, although I did not curl up into my blanket tonight so that I would have freedom to move if the need arose. I checked the loads in my guns and loosened the knife in the scabbard, then with my hat over my eyes I fell swiftly asleep.
The desert is a strange sort of place. To many it is a barren, inhospitable place that offers nothing whatsoever to man or beast, but in reality the desert is as full of life as any forest or lush river valley. A man has to be alone with the desert to really understand it, to really know the ways of the land and of the creatures that inhabit it. Nothing in the desert lives without struggle. Every plant has a thorn or poison to defend itself, every animal is cautious of predators, and every movement is governed by the need for water and the expectation of danger. Any move that is made is a quiet one and no animal of the desert takes the chance of breaking a twig or rolling a stone that would betray its position. Such sounds are out of place in the calm tranquility of the desert, and to the trained ear such sounds immediately stand out from all others.
It was such a sound that caught my attention later in the night, instantly rousing me from sleep. I had never been a heavy sleeper and I often slept only in snatches, getting up often to listen to the night sounds whenever I could. My eyes opened at the sound and I peered out from under my hat brim, searching the brush for whatever had made the sound. I couldn't say exactly what sound had woke me, but I trusted my senses too much to think it was nothing. Something was moving out there, something that was not normal or any animal. A minute went by and a I heard it again, the unmistakable whisper of cloth on brush. It was faint and it was quiet, but it was there.
My hand crept little by little to the belt at my side, my fingers grasping at the handle of my Bowie knife. The guns would have been better, but whatever action was coming now would be close and it would have to be quiet. There was no telling how many more might be close by and a gunshot would certainly invite fire from the station. With infinite care I slid the knife from the scabbard and held it with the edge up, ready to strike up and under the ribs so the blade could find the vitals and not be fouled on a bone. The sound came again, closer this time, and then I heard the rustle of feet on the sand. A shadow loomed over me, and I saw moonlight on a blade.
I rolled to the side and onto one knee just as the blade came down with a metallic thud on the hard-packed earth. I struck out hard with the knife and I felt the tip scrape and flesh, then a yell of pain came out of the darkness. I stepped in and grasped at the arm that came up with the machete that would've taken off my head, stabbing upward with my knife. A strong hand took hold of my wrist and the blade stopped, and for a moment the two of us were locked in a fierce battle of strengths as each of us tried to outdo the other. Neither of us gave ground and we were both equally determined to live through this fight. Finally my enemy faltered and I shot a knee up and into his groin. My knee hit something solid on man's belly that felt like armor of some kind, but I hurt him grunt in pain and I felt his strength falter. With the same foot I kicked hard on the shin and he gave ground, his grip loosened on my wrist, then my knife went in fast and I felt the tip find flesh.
The blade went in deep and there was a stifled yell, then I struck again and again at the ribs and under the arm. The first blow was stopped by the old polymer armor that the legionnaire wore, but the second found bare flesh and went it deep, almost to the hilt, and I felt warm blood flow over my hand and sleeve. A low scream out of him and his iron grip lost its strength as he fell to the ground. The rustle of more feet came from the brush and I whirled around just in time to see another red-clad figure coming from the brush with a throwing spear held low for a strike. With lightning speed I slapped away the shaft and swept his leg out from under him with a boot toe. He fell to the ground and I swept the knife across his throat, ending him faster than the last. Immediately I scooped up my rifle and gunbelt and made for the brush. I dove into the thickest of cover available and eared back the hammer of the repeater, but no one else came.
Dawn came an hour later, revealing the two bodies in stark detail. They were two recruits, each of them powerfully built and wearing the new red uniforms and light armor that were common among newer troops. Blood had pooled beneath them and no one had come to loot the bodies or make another try for me. They were unarmed aside from a machete and two spears, that I could see, so this had probably been some kind of initiation. The Legion put a lot of stock in the first kill and a Ranger would be worth a lot more in terms of prestige than the average trooper. I guess I should be proud, but I never liked killing the new ones. Too young to die like this.
I met the others at the mess tent for breakfast, more mole rat and coffee with a side of fresh banana yucca. They all saw the blood on my sleeve, but no one said anything. Gibson gave the only comment after the meal was finished and we were about to head out.
"Two. Up on the ridge behind some cholla."
"Well, there'll be plenty more where we're going. Glad you came out of it alright, Weathers."
"Thank you, sir."
"Ready for another good walk?"
"You know sir," I said as I slung my satchel over my shoulder, "when I got this assignment, I was hoping there'd be more gambling."