Well, I could have been knocked out with a feather. Angeline here? There couldn't have been another woman in the Mojave named Angeline who was in that line of work. Angeline had been the kind that would turn to hunting men for a living. She was tough, she was ambitious, and she was hell on wheels with a gun. And now she was here.
"You can go find her if you want, Ranger, and we'll look after Swanick."
"Thanks, but no thanks. I'll just need some supplies and we'll be on our way."
"You're gonna need some help if you're gonna take this man to Foxtrot. Trying to go it alone is just crazy."
"I've made it through worse chores. If you'll hold him here for a few minutes, I'll just go get some supplies from your store and we'll be going. I want a good head start before his boys hear about this."
"You got all of them that came into town. I doubt they'll hear about it very soon."
"I know men like Swanick here. If my guess is right, he's probably got men in the hills watching the town, a man in the hotel or the woods waiting for these others to show up, or even some of your people on the payroll. Besides, you know how fast people talk out here. Hold him here for a bit and I'll be back soon."
Without another word I grabbed my rifle and pack and I was out the door. The hotel was just two doors down and it took me only a minute to get to it. The lobby was sparsely furnished and there were only a couple of mutants loafing around, with only a big blue Nightkin in a red shirt giving me any attention at all, so I just strolled in and went immediately to the office on the right side of the lobby. There was a human doctor there that was busy working on some kind of cure or medication for the Nightkin and their addiction to Stealth Boy usage and a ghoul woman named Calamity who ran a makeshift store when not helping out with the doctor's research. She was in her little corner of the room when I came in and I leaned my rifle against the wall and opened my pack to trade.
I had some things that I'd gathered along the way up the road into the mountains and I'd taken the guns from the dead Powder Gangers back at Zeke's. I traded those and a few caps for a week's worth of jerky, coffee, dried fruit, a spare blanket and some strong rope for my prisoner, and an extra box of .357 magnums. I also bought a few Stimpaks, just in case I needed them. I loaded the supplies into my pack and shouldered it, and in another five minutes I was back in the bar and tying a restraint on Swanick. I tied his hands first, then with the same length of rope I made a slipknot and looped the rope around his neck and then made another loop that I could use as a hand grip or to lead him along if necessary.
He groaned at the tightness of the rope, which I smiled at, and after telling Marcus to radio ahead to Station Foxtrot and a hard tug on the lead rope I went out the door and into the cold again. I hated to be back in the cold after the short respite in the warm tavern, but I had it to do. In a few minutes we were outside the gate and back into the forest. I kept Swanick ahead of me and stayed off the roads, following the trails and game paths into the deepest of the woods and into the high foothills. It was cold, bitterly cold, and in places we had to skirt around deep drifts of snow. Swanick tried to sandbag it, dragging his feet or using some excuse to be slow and trying to leave as much sign as he could in the trail. A quick kick to the balls and a hard jerk on the lead rope put an end to that.
I tried not to think of Angeline. It was everything I could do to not run to that hotel and burst into her room to see her. I could still remember that night in Novac before I set out with Boone, that kiss in my hotel room, the way that she looked at me with those beautiful eyes . . .
That was nonsense, and I knew it. She was a good woman, much too good for the likes of me, and she deserved more than a life with a man like me. I'm a man born to the lonely places, the high deserts and the cold mountains, the wind-swept hills and the barren flats. And I'm a man that was known for his gun. I never wanted that reputation, but it was on me now and I knew what happened to men that had the name of gunman. There was always some glory-hungry punk out for his own name that was coming down the pike or some enemy that would be too good for him or just a second faster or shoot a little straighter. That was no way for a woman to be, wondering if there would be a day when her man wouldn't come home or having to see him shot down in the street or in the desert. She had already lost one man that way.
"That Angeline," Swanick said after an hour or so on the trail, "I think I know her. If it's the same girl I'm thinking of, then she's a hellcat in the sack. Hot damn!"
"Shut up, Swanick."
"Ooh, a little sweet on her, huh? You should have bought her back in her prime like I did. She did things to me that even a Gomorrah girl wouldn't do. I certainly got my thirty caps' worth that night!"
"I said shut up! One more word out of you and I'll blow our knees out and drag your ass to Foxtrot."
"Oh, I think the Ranger has a soft spot for the whores. I guess if a man can't find a decent wife for himself, then I guess he's gotta buy it somewhere."
I didn't really mean to break his nose, but it just sort of happened that way. My hand moved all on its own and jerked that rope around hard and then swung my fist up and right into the bridge of his nose. I've done a sight of hard work in my time and I work out as often as I can, and the fur-lined gloves I wore did little to cushion the blow. His head snapped back and I felt his nose crumple under my fist. He didn't have much to say after that.
We had started late in the day and before long the sun was sinking down below the high peaks. Daylight waned earlier in the mountains than in the lower lands and the air immediately became colder. I pushed hard into the woods, wanting as much distance between us and his gang as possible, but the darkness soon overtook us and I started hunting a place to camp. I found a place in the lee of a ledge that would reflect heat and curb the wind a little and sort of nestled back in the pines where there was good concealment. I gathered some fallen boughs from under the pines and dug out the dry kindling that I carried in my satchel. In a few minutes I had a fire going, food cooking, and two cups of coffee brewing in the cups.
The fire and the food felt good after the long, cold walk. We had left late in the day and had made poor time. We had been on the trail for about five hours and had covered just a little more than that many miles. This was rugged country and we were following the lonely and forgotten trails that cut through the lonesome forests and the roughest terrain. I had seen few tracks on the trail aside from those of Bighorners and Mantises, but what had worried me the most were the few pieces of scat that I'd seen mixed in with the pine cones that looked like those of Cazadors. That was one thing that I didn't want any part of. I'd seen those orange-winged devils swarm up by the dozens and take down even Deathclaws with those deadly stingers of theirs. I'd heard that they lived in the higher valleys and there were even nests of them somewhere around Red Rock Canyon.
By now Swanick's men would have heard about the fight at Zeke's and they would be on the trail after us. I had taken every precaution that I could with the time that we were allowed, what little there was, scratching out what few tracks we had left in the dust with pine boughs and scattering pine needles and dust over the scratch marks to make the trail look as old as I could, but it would be little enough if they had a good tracker. They would be on the trail now and they would be out for blood. Would they really want Swanick back, I wonder? He was a coward and a crook, but he was their leader. Or was he? Oftentimes gangs like these would let a man think he was in charge as long as they thought he could deliver the goods or if he had a plan. If I knew Swanick and his kind, it was likely that he had most the loot stashed away somewhere to be divided up once they came down from the mountains. That guff I'd been talking about big spending back at Zeke's had been bullshit. They wouldn't have divvied it up until the heat was off and they could move more freely.
It wouldn't be the first time that a bandit lord had held out on his men. More often than not it was a bandit chief's own men that did him in over something like that. They would no doubt want some payback for the men they'd lost at Zeke's, but those ties didn't mean much to men like them. They would want Swanick more than anything, whether because of his leadership or because he knew where the loot was hidden. They would be hunting us, probably even now, and they knew the woods and the trails. They would probably have Great Khans with them, men that had grown up in this country and would know it better than anyone. I was a newcomer and no idea where I was going aside from a general direction and a vague idea of where the station was supposed to be. Sitting by the fire with that steaming coffee in my hands, I considered the situation.
By my reckoning, Ranger Station Foxtrot couldn't be more than a few miles from where we were encamped. It lay somewhere to the southeast and nestled back in a sort of box canyon at the north end of Red Rock Canyon where they could keep an eye on the Khans. It was off the main roads and along an old trail, but aside from that I didn't know much about the place. I had never been there myself and was going off of what I had heard from other Rangers and travelers. As the crow flies, it couldn't be more than eight or ten miles to the station. By the way we would have to go it would likely be much more. It was all rugged country up here and I didn't dare go to the roads. Those boys would have men posted on those old asphalt ribbons that would shoot on sight if we were spotted.
"Nice night, ain't it?", Swanick said over the fire.
I didn't reply but just sat there and sipped my coffee. It was strong and black, but above all it was hot and relaxed my tired muscles.
"That's my favorite thing about up here. The nights are so peaceful and so clear. No New Vegas neon in the distance, no tire smoke from the settlements, no Legion or NCR raiders going back and forth. Up here it's all cool and clear. A man can just sit and look up at the stars and just forget about everyone and everything else for a while."
"I ain't forgetting anything, Swanick."
"It's a fine place. A fine place for a man to die."
"It was for those boys back yonder. I wonder how many more will be on ice before this is over."
"You have to know that you'll never get to that station alive, Ranger. Hell, you ain't even gonna last the night. I've got ten men in these woods, all tough bastards, and four of 'em are Great Khans outta the canyon. They'll cut your hide and stretch it out before daybreak."
"Swanick, I've fought Great Khans before. I've fought Legion, Vipers, Tribals, Powder Gangers and everyone else that packs a gun and asks for trouble. I've had a hundred men try and kill me and I've laid low or driven off every one of 'em, and they were all better men than you. Hell, I've taken shits tougher than you.
"You're the kind of man that talks tough and walks tall when he's around real tough men but when the moment comes to prove yourself you just shrink back and shrivel up. I saw that back at Zeke's. You had your chance and you probably could have taken me if you and yours had been fighting together, but you just fell back and let your men die like the coward you are. You could have tried your luck back there, but instead you just stood there and wet yourself."
"You'll be sorry you talked to me like that, Ranger. When my boys get me back -"
"When your boys get here, the only thing they'll want from you is the location of that money. I'd be willing to bet that you've got that cash hidden somewhere in these hills, maybe close to camp. Am I right? Sure, you probably handed out some of it, but not enough to make your men happy. Sixty thousand is a lot of money. What was the plan? Let things blow over and then drug the coffee and leave 'em in the dark? Or maybe just poison them all so there's no witnesses? Was that it?"
Right away his face changed and I knew that I had struck a chord. He was a big talker in the saloons and the casinos with money in his pocket and tough men around him, but as soon as the time came to fight for himself he would turn tail and run as fast as he could.
He was the kind that was ruining the Mojave but the kind that wasn't going to last long. The warriors were here now, but after them would come the farmers, the builders, the solid folk. I knew that my kind wouldn't be needed forever. I was one of the warriors, the fighting men that tamed the land and made it safe for those that would come later. There were some good folks already out here, but there would be more coming in the coming years. Once the war was over the good folks would be coming from the NCR and out of the deserts to make a new and better life for themselves. My folks had tried and gone down on their own land, just like many another farmer and settler in the Mojave had done.
Sitting there and sipping my coffee, I found myself thinking about Angeline as I looked off into the woods. A bounty hunter? I guess that would make sense. She was an artist with a rifle and one of the toughest women I'd ever known, maybe the toughest of all, and from what I'd seen of her in the field she was a first-class fighting and tracking woman. Her husband had been a lawman and they had both been caravan guards out in the frontiers. She knew her way around rough men and rough trails where the lonesome winds blew. hunting men isn't much different from hunting anything else once one gets the hang of it. She had seen trouble aplenty and she had seen more violence than any woman had a right to, so she had a reason for carrying around some hate for the bad types. She was a tough one and a good one, but certainly not one that I would want on my trail.
I had no business thinking of her. She was a good woman and not one to bother with the likes of me. I threw the drags of my coffee into the fire, took up my rifle, then after tying a handkerchief around Swanick's mouth to keep him quiet I went out into the darkness of the woods. I had scouted around the area of camp while the meal was cooking and looked over the likely places where a man or a beast might approach. The pines offered good cover to a point, but the light of our fire and the smell of wood smoke and food cooking would make it stick out. I went around and quickly set snares, tripwire traps, and a small deadfall that would be more like a warning than an actual trap. I'd spent some time in the woods before hunting with my dad, although I hadn't been to them in years, so it took me only a few minutes to get those traps set. The night was growing darker by the minute, for the twilight lasts much longer in the mountains than lower down in the desert, and just as the last light of day was going away I had the last traps set up and ready to welcome all comers.
I went back to camp for a minute or two and put Swanick in his bedroll, then put some logs and pine boughs under my own blanket and then put my hat down where my head would normally be. I rolled my blankets over the bundle so that it looked like I was there sleeping. Swanick saw what I was doing and tried to grumble about it, but a hard kick in the ribs made him quiet down right quick. I took my rifle again and went back to the perimeter of the camp where a big pinyon pine had recently fallen and left its thickly bristled head sprawled out on the forest floor. It offered good cover and great concealment for a man my size, so when I slid into the thick bristles and cut away a couple thicker branches I was almost completely hidden. I checked the shell in my rifle and then my revolver, laid my repeater across the arm of two branches, and then I was ready.
Time passed slowly and the last of the sunlight faded away, replaced quickly by the rising moon and its pale light that drifted down through the leaves and the canopy overhead, coloring the forest floor with tiny patches of bluish light and the occasional star that peeked out through the thick covering of pine and aspen leaves. The night creatures came out and started their nightly symphony as they crept to and fro searching for food. I could hear the chirping and scratching of Mantises looking for smaller insects, the buzzing of flies and lightning bugs, and the rustling of night squirrels and smaller animals and birds. Once I heard the faraway bellow of a bull Bighorner somewhere in the distance. A slow hour passed before I started to hear the first lonely howl of a coyote, answered a moment later by another a mile or so from where I lay.
My eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness and soon the trees stood out like stoic pillars all around me, the pale moonlight making the hard wood seem as stone. I saw no movement aside from that of a Mantis moving from one tree to another in search of termites and ants that took one look at our camp and then moved off toward the west. The night was cool and I started to feel a chill, but I didn't dare move to warm my hands or cheeks. I lay perfectly still in my little shelter. Hunting of any kind calls for infinite patience, and that was something that I had a great supply of. I laid still under the shelter of the pine needles, my eyes moving restlessly from one tree to the other. Nothing moved, nothing stirred, and the only sounds were those of the animals.
Two hours had passed before I thought of moving. I was tired and had an early start in the morning and I was about to call it a night when something moved near me and off to my right. It was a dark shadow about the size of a man, darting from one tree to another, and a moment later he moved again with slow and deliberate movements. Another man came up from my left toward the camp. Both men moved on cat feet and made no sound on the thick bedding of pine needles that covered the forest floor. I lifted my rifle and started to take aim at one of them, almost ready to ear back the hammer, when a soft sound of a foot coming down on leaves sounded from behind me. I paused and a third shadow came out of the darkness behind me.
He seemed to be using my fallen pine as cover, for he squatted somewhere behind me and out of sight, so I immediately froze in place. A few moments he waited there, then he moved again very carefully and very quietly. His feet made almost no sound on the soft earth and pine needles. He was within five feet of me and his bulk loomed before me in the shadows, standing out against the strips of moonlight on the ground. He went slowly toward the camp and as he moved I saw the glint of moonlight steel from what looked like a kitchen knife. I could see the black of his vest and the faint emblem across the black leather.
I sat quiet and let him move away a few feet, then as quietly as I could I slipped out of the fallen tree and moved up behind him. He heard no sound from me, just as I heard none from him, and I held my rifle ready and in my hands. He was completely focused on the camp and his comrades, so I got right up behind him before he became aware of me. Whether he heard some little sound I had made or simply felt my presence, I'll never know, but he stood tall and spun around with that knife held low and with the edge up. I ducked to one side to avoid the thrust, then brought the stock of my Cowboy Repeater up hard and hit him in the chin. The blow knocked him back a step and I moved in close to him, then swung the barrel around and caught him just above the ear. I felt the thud of metal on skin and he went limp and fell soundlessly on the bed of pine needles and in a second I scooped up his knife, the only weapon I could see, and started for the camp.
The other two already gotten to the fire and I could see Swanick wriggling around in his blankets. They didn't seem interested in him, though. They were both locked onto my bedroll and one of them came out of the brush and swung his machete down hard. The blade came down fast and I heard the "chunk" of it striking the logs I'd left under the blanket where my shoulders and neck would have been, lodging in the wood and raising a curse from its owner. No sooner had the blade struck the log than a shot rang out from the deeper woods and the machete wielder grabbed at his chest and jerked off to one side. The other man toward where the shot had come from and grabbed for the gun on his hip, and I let him have it right in the belly. He doubled over and I heard a groan of pain as he went down.
There was a rustle of movement then, the woods exploding with noise as what sounded like at least four or five men came to their feet and moved as one. I heard a snap and a crash followed by a curse, then two yells of pain and surprise almost on top of each other. Another shot came from the woods and I turned to face woods where my traps had been set and I dusted them with four fast shots. There was another shot from the hidden shooter and two return shots from whoever was in the woods, both going wild, and then there was silence again.
I crept back into camp and took the machete out of that log, grumbling some after seeing the big slash in my old blanket. The body of the Khan lay a few feet from my bedroll and I dragged him away a few yards into the woods, then his partner, and then I rolled my gunbelt and laid out my guns for bed. Those boys wouldn't be coming back any more tonight. They had expected to come in for an easy kill, but now they were facing two shooters and traps that could be anywhere around. They'd lost two men and probably had a couple hurt or wounded. That would be enough for them for a while. I didn't know who that other shooter could be, but that had sounded like a .308 Hunting Rifle and so I had a more than passing notion of who it could be. I laid in my blankets, my hat over my eyes, and I slept.
Morning was a cool haze of mist and a light sprinkling of fresh snow, but the fire still had some dying coals and I added some kindling. Soon I had good blaze and I put on the coffee and food from last night for breakfast. Swanick stirred and I took off his gag so that he could eat. I poured myself a cup of the strong coffee and scooped up a plate of food for myself, then ate in silence for a while. Something stirred in the brush around camp, but I paid little mind. If they were unfriendly then they would have opened the ball by now. Besides, I knew those dainty little steps all too well. I heard the snow crunch under boots and out of the corner of my eye I saw a form come out of the woods. I couldn't help but smile.
"Light and set, Angie," I said after a mouthful of beans, "food's hot and the coffee's good. The company ain't the best, but it's the best I can do for now."
"No worries, Dan. I've et with worse in my time."
She came into camp and squatted beside the fire, placing her rifle on the ground and ladling herself up some pork n' beans and coffee. She went well armed, very well armed, and I was glad of it. The rifle she'd been carrying was one of those Marksman Carbines I'd seen from time to time and I saw her old Hunting Rifle slung across her shoulders, and on her hips hung a pair of .357 Revolvers. Her Hunting Rifle had been fitted with a long-range scope. She was dressed in a Merc Troublemaker's outfit under her coat and her hair was in a ponytail. She wore no hat, which was odd in this weather, and her tanned skin was flushed from the cold. Her bedroll was rolled up with what might be supplies rolled into it and was slung over the same shoulder as the rifle.
Swanick looked from one to the other, not really knowing what to think of it. I'd taken his gag out and given him a plate, his hands still tied, so that he could eat, and he knew who she was even without me having to say anything. I expect she'd been making a name for herself lately. She sipped her coffee and I sipped mine, loving the warm feeling of it after the cold night and the chill air of the morning.
We said no more between us and we finished our meal, and after cleaning the dishes with snow water I took up my rifle and went for a quick look around camp. The traps were nearly all sprung and the loops had been cut loose, and when I checked the deadfall there was blood on the snow and I could see marks where someone had dragged themselves along after wrestling out from under the tree. Someone was hurting. There was blood on the snow in two places where men had been hit and carried away. Neither of them were hurt bad, judging by the blood, but they would be out of action for a while and probably out of this fight. Two men down, three men hurt, so that would leave five men ready for a fight. And now I had Angeline on my side. Five to two was a hell of a lot better than ten to one. I took the remaining snares and traps apart and scattered the makings, wanting no poor animal to come along and get caught in them. I came back into camp and found Angeline staring over her coffee, and a revolver, at Swanick. The latter was on the ground and had a little blood coming from his nose.
"I don't see any game," she said without looking away from Swanick, "what, did your traps not pan out?"
"Oh, I caught a couple varmints. They just worked themselves out and scurried off somewhere else. Well, two scurried off. One of them had to drag hisself a while. What happened to him?"
"Oh, he got a little rambunctious and decided he wanted to go for a walk. I talked him out of it."
"I can see that."
"You just wait," Swanick said through his bleeding nose, "once my boys get here -"
"Swanick, your boys were after one thing and one thing only last night. They wanted me dead so they could haul you off and beat the location of that money out of you. They came right up to camp and didn't seem to care about what happened when bullets flew. And those four Great Khans you were bragging about? Well, two of them are over there in the ditch and another one's gonna have a headache for a few days and probably a broken jaw. Those traps I set caught a couple more. I'd say that two men took bullets and another has a busted leg.
"Now, Angeline over there, she doesn't like Powder Gangers or lecherous assholes. You seem to be both. You know what they say about bounty hunters, don't ya? When a bounty is dead or alive, dead is just easier to carry. She's hell on wheels with those guns and she can score hits from five hundred yards out with that Hunting Rifle of hers. I gave her that gun after I took it off of a dead legionnaire and she hacked him to death with his own machete. You think about that for a while."
Angeline smiled that pretty smile of hers and for a moment I wanted to kiss her, but I saw the look on Swanick's face and I couldn't help but smile some myself. He fancied himself a tough man, but he was finally starting to realize that he was really in for it. I bet there had been some talk between him and those two Khans that had come to kill me and he probably didn't like what he heard. He wanted to be a big man again, a bandit king, a man that other men feared and looked at when he walked by. Now, though, he was starting to realize that what I'd been telling him was true. Those men of his were just like any other bandit trash that I'd seen a hundred times before. Killers, thieves, and cutthroats who just wanted their cut of a score. There's no way that he got them together himself. He had likely just come along and promised them a heist and a good split.
We doused the fire and started off down the trail then, me in the lead with Swanick behind me and Angeline bringing up the rear. We both walked with our rifles in hand and with Swanick bound again. The sun was coming up over the mountain before we had an hour behind us, peaking up over the saw-backed peaks and bringing its full light down into the valley in which he walked. In the mountains sunrise comes late and twilight comes early, although the time would be the same as down lower. We saw game on the trail, spooking a couple of Bighorners and Mantises from the path and seeing the tracks of what looked like Nightstalkers or coyotes mixed in with the other game. Again I found Cazador scat and found myself hoping that we didn't run into them. The last thing we needed was to walk into a swarm of orange-winged death with a stinger.
Always we were alert and my eyes never stopped moving. We had hurt those boys the night before and they'd bled some, but they would be even more desperate now for that and for that money. There were a thousand places out here where a man could hide in cover and lay for a man on that trail with a rifle.
We left the snow behind and the terrain became rougher as we went lower. The slope became more rocky and there were huge boulders and great shoulders of rock jutting out from the ground which we had to skirt around. We crossed a mountain stream and filled our canteens with fresh water and had a long drink. That was snow water from the high-up peaks, cold and clear as all get out and just about the best water I ever tasted. The stream was only a few inches deep where we stopped but I could see places both up and downstream where it would be much deeper and I could see trout and what looked like blue salmon swimming by in the crystal clear water. There was a meadow just around the bend of the stream and when we passed through it I decided that it was one of the most beautiful places I'd ever laid eyes on. I'd never been one for the high country, having been raised in the low deserts and the hot plains, but the more time I spent up here the more it was starting to grow on me.
I don't know how many times I've been to places like that and just never wanted to leave. Such beauty, such peace and tranquility, with no sound anywhere apart from the soft gurgle of the stream and the songs of the birds, the bellow of distant Bighorners, and the music of the wind in the pines and the rustle of pine needles underfoot. How many times had I sat in camp or in a trail like that and thought to myself "I have to come back here someday" knowing that I never would? A traveling man can't always come back to those places, even if he could hope to find them again, and more often than not he's left with only the memories of the beauty he had seen. Walking along those meadows and listening to that stream, though, I made up my mind for sure and certain that I was coming back here someday.
Ranger Station Foxtrot came closer to us, now only a couple miles down the trail, and I was starting to get nervous. We had seen no sign of men or movement anywhere and up ahead I could see the edge of the canyons through which we would have to pass to get to the station. Now, I've done a sight of hunting for both man and beast and I know better than most just how much of an opportunity a canyon presents for ambush. There could be a man on the rim of that canyon with a rifle trained on the trail that a man down below would never see or ever be aware of before a bullet came sailing out of that clear mountain air.
I stopped us in a thick stand of aspen in the shadow of some tall pines and made coffee over a hatful of fire. Aspens make excellent fuel and good cover, but this aspen grove was dying away and I could see where casualties of the aspen's eternal war with the pines had already fallen. Aspens grow tall and thick in the open sunlight and bare slopes, especially after a good burn, and they provide cover and shelter for the young pines that would eventually take over the grove. I dug out some jerked beef and handed some to Angeline and, after a moment, to Swanick. Once the coffee was on we warmed ourselves with it and I squatted beside the fire and eyeballed that canyon. I wanted a closer look it before we went into it. I had a bad feeling about walking into that narrow pass with its high walls and pine-shrouded rims and shelves of talus.
"What are you thinking, Dan?", Angeline's voice said beside me.
"I don't like the looks of that canyon. Doesn't smell right to me."
"I was thinking the same thing."
"I figure that if you give me about fifteen minutes' head start, I think I'll go around the rim and see if I can flush somebody out before you and the prisoner back there come through."
"Sounds good. I can leave him tied here and cover you if you want."
"Nah. If we leave him here his boys might just swing around us and cut him loose. Besides, you can cover me with that old sharpshooter piece of yours. If you see anyone poke their head up over the rim that isn't me, you let 'em have it between the eyes."
"You got it."
"And be careful. I don't want anything to happen to you. You just keep that rifle ready and keep a sharp eye out."
I didn't have to look to know that she was blushing from what I'd just said, and truth be told I hadn't caught it until it was out. I felt myself going a little red around the gills myself. I tried not to look at her, instead I just finished my coffee, checked the loads on my rifle, and I started toward the rim of the canyon. I followed a faint trail the that looked like it had been made by Bighorners at some point in time but had fallen out of use lately. It branched off of the trail we'd been following and it wound through the thickest of the cover and up the steep slope where the talus had fallen away and left a large crack, widened over untold years by the flow of rain and melting snow.
It was rough going at first, with the slope being so steep that I had to scramble and my boots slid on the loose rock and icy ground and for a stretch of about twenty feet I had to sling my rifle over my shoulder and climb up a sheer bluff to save some time. The trail wound around bends and curves in the terrain in a half-dozen switchbacks over barren dirt and flaky talus, following the lay of the land as such trails tend to do. No animal makes a trail without a purpose and they never travel harder or rougher than they have to. A trail made by a man might follow the hardest and fastest route, while an animal always goes for the easier way. Usually the easier way meant the longer way.
Once on the ridge, I went along under the brush just off the trail, crouched low and with my rifle in hand. There were men up here on this ridge, of that I was sure, and they would be in a killing mood. Two of those Khans were still up and going, and they were known far and wide as some of the best frontiersmen anywhere. I'd scouted the rim from down below and picked out the likeliest spots for a shooter to be and I made for the nearest one. By now Angeline would be on the move and pretty soon they would be in the canyon down below and they would be walking right into those guns, although if I knew Angeline I knew that she would have a weather eye on the rim and he finger ready on the trigger of that rifle of hers.
My boots made little sound on the slick grass, wet now from the melting snow, and I crept ever closer to the first place where I suspected that a shooter might be. I held my rifle ready at the hip and with the hammer eared back, my finger resting on the trigger guard. I went through the brush carefully and quietly and in a couple minutes I came to the canyon rim. Sure enough, there was a man in a black coat sprawled out on the ground with a Sniper Rifle on a bipod behind some young cedars. His heavy coat covered his clothes, but his leather trousers and spiked hair marked him as a Great Khan. His rifle was trained on the canyon entrance and I could see the barrel move ever so slightly as he followed a target. He would be about ready to fire by now.
I didn't waste any time. I came out of that brush about ten feet behind him and covered the distance in three fast steps. He heard me coming and rolled over, his hand dropping for the 10mm in his holster, and I swung my rifle hard and by the grip and the barrel caught him in the forehead. He started to roll over again and I stepped down hard on his gun hand, then grabbed him by the front of his shirt and hit him hard in the face with the lever. His lips were smashed to a red pulp and he rolled to one side and spit out a tooth, then another.
"Now that you're calmed down some, let's have a talk Mr. Khan."
"Go to hell!"
"You and me both, Mr. Khan, but first I have some questions. Where's the rest of your boys?"
"Ready to kill you and that bitch of yours, that's where!"
I hit him again, this time with a hard right to the ribs. He crumbled up and coughed out more blood from his busted lips. He tried to grab for his gun again but I grabbed it from his hand and tossed it over the side of the cliff, then kicked his rifle over the edge with a sweeping boot. He had a Combat Knife on his belt, but I let him keep that in case he felt lucky again.
"Let's try this again. Where are your boys? Be careful how you answer, now, or else I'm likely to really get mean and not be quite so gentle."
"All right, all right! They're down the rim, maybe eighty yards or so, waitin' for the ball to open. Once I took out you and the bi- , uh, the woman, they were supposed to go down and get the boss to fess up on where he buried the loot. He hadn't give us our share yet and we're tired of his shit. They're right down there in some cedars."
"Thanks, Mr. Khan. I appreciate it."
"Fuck you, ya son of a -"
I kicked him hard in the chin with my boot heel and he went down hard on the damp earth, out cold. I stripped him of his gunbelt and tossed the knife away, then shucked the mags from their pouches and threw them into the brush in different directions. I went back to the dim trail and followed it down the line of the ridge and into a thick stand of young cedars shaded by a grove of aspens and pines. The rim was no more than twenty or thirty yards off to my left, plainly visible through the brush and the columns of the pine trunks, and I went down into those trees like a Nightstalker after a Mole Rat. I was mad after what that Khan had said about Angeline and I was in the mood for trouble.
I slid into those cedars real quiet-like, crouched low and moving on cat feet. My rifle felt good in my hands and I held it ready and I touched the grip of Lucky to loosen it in the holster. In the space of two minutes I caught a whiff of wood smoke and after a few more steps I saw a white column of it rising out of the green wall ahead of me. It was a small fire, no more than a hatful, but it was far enough back of the rim that it would not be seen from below and the smell of the smoke would be undetectable from down in the canyon. I edged in closer, dropping to my belly to crawl under the cones of the young trees and my passage making no sound on the fallen needles. There were three men in camp, one of them nursing a cup of coffee and the others loafing around the fire, and I could see three more in their blankets. One of them had a splint on his leg and another wore a bandage around his arm, while the third had a bloody rag wrapped around his head. The other Khan, the one I'd hit back at camp the night we were ambushed, was nowhere in sight.
"Too damn long," one of them said, "Blaine shoulda seen 'em by now. I haven't heard a shot or nothing. They've gotta be comin' along sometime."
"Shut up, Cory. All you do is whine and gripe. At least you ain't laid up and sittin' on your ass all damned day like me."
"Hey, I told you to watch for traps. That busted leg is just as much your fault as anyone."
"Don't you worry, boys. Cory and Reyes will see those two pretty soon and they'll be dead before they even hear the shots. Reyes, he's in a lather to get some payback for Reese. Those two set store by each other."
"I don't give a damn what that Khan sets store by. I just want my money. There's a few whores over at Gomorrah I'm anxious to get acquainted with again. That little tart down in the canyon ain't too bad lookin', either. Maybe Blaine should just wing her and let us have some one-on-one time with her. Once that Ranger's in the ground, she'll be all ours."
I came out of the trees in a casual walk and with my rifle in one hand. "She's more woman than the lot of you can handle."
The three men at the fire sprang to their feet like they had springs in their pants. The one they called Cory grabbed for his .357 and I swung up my repeater and fired from the hip. The bullet caught him right in the eye and he went backwards like he'd been pole-axed. The man to my left reached for the Hunting Shotgun leaning against the log he was sitting on and I levered another shot at him that blossomed his coat with crimson. His body jerked at the impact and he took a step forward, but his knees gave out underneath him and he fell face first into the campfire. The flames licked at his long black hair and blazed up a mite when they caught hold, but he was well past feeling at that point. I worked the lever and replaced the shell again, holding it on the last man on his feet.
He froze in place as soon as he saw that black eye of my gun staring down at him, and his hand gently picked that .357 Revolver out of the holster with two fingers before dropping it next to the fire. The smell of burning hair was coming from the man in the Troublemaker's outfit, and I motioned with my gun barrel at his corpse.
"Get him outta there before he starts to stink."
Well, sir, that last man did like he was told and pulled his partner out of the fire. A shot came from down in the canyon and sounded off the high stone walls, then a stifled cry of pain and the long, drawn out scream of a man falling. Angeline always was a damn good shot, even when shooting up at an angle. I couldn't help but smile a crooked smile as the echoes of a the shot died away in the distance. That last man sat there in his Merc Cruiser duds and looked at me like I was crazy.
"What the hell's so funny?"
"Just thinking about what the NCR's gonna do with you boys when the Rangers get here. Station Foxtrot ain't but a mile off and I know they heard the shooting. They should be here in a minute or two."
That took the starch out of them. They had probably been thinking of that themselves, my saying something just brought it to their attention even more. Those three that were laid up had it the worst. Any other time they would have had me cold, but they were hurt and in no shape to fight and their guns were in a neat little pile beside the rest of the gear. The one with the busted leg was looking at me like a Gecko looks at a Mole Rat pup.
I collected the guns and tossed them into a pile near the fire, then dig out some jerky from my pack and sat and chewed it with my gun on them. That last man, whose name it turned out was Rick, was in no mood to start trouble. He didn't want to go to jail, but a dead man can't appeal his sentence. I just sat there and waited, and sure enough there was a rustle of activity in the trees after about twenty minutes or so and four Rangers, one in Combat Armor, came out of the cedars with repeaters leveled. They rounded up the gang and started them back toward camp and in another half hour we were all sitting around a fire with a roasting Bighorner at Station Foxtrot.
Angeline brought in Swanick and they put him in a pen with the rest of his men. It didn't take long to get location of the loot out of him. He had been the leader of an ambush that had killed six NCR troopers and all of his men were willing to testify against him. He was going to the gallows and we all knew it. For that matter, most of the others were as well.
The day waned and the Rangers all came in for supper, and for the first time in a long time I felt at home. I was among my fellow Rangers again, I had hot food in my belly, and I had Angeline beside me laughing and smiling. She was a beautiful woman, even more so than she had been before, and I was happy that she was here with me. We didn't say much, but then again there are times when words just fall short. I didn't try to fight it anymore and I could see that she felt the same. I was hers and she was mine, and nothing was gonna change that.
"Good to see that you're still alive, Weathers," Ranger Kudlow, commanding Ranger of the station, said after supper was over, "I thought that you were out of the game for a while."
"Nah. Just on hiatus, I guess. I got a little rowdy back on the front and old Gibson couldn't handle me anymore so he had Chief Hanlon ship me out."
"Haha, I can believe that. It's too bad about old Gibson."
"Too bad? What do you mean?"
"Haven't you heard? Gibson and his squad got ambushed a week back. They're all dead."