I don't know how long I lay there on the sand, but it must have been several hours at least. When at last my eyes opened a little bit and I let them adjust to the haze that was on me, all was dark and the air had the cool feeling of evening or night on it. I felt no pain as of yet, but I knew that it was just a matter of time. I remembered feeling the bullet hit and I remembered falling, then hitting the rock ledges and falling down into the lee of the cliff. A few moments went by and I started to feel the pain creep into my body. My shoulders were sore and I could feel a stab of pain in my side, and when I tried to move my legs I found that my left leg was strangely numb. I rolled over and pushed myself up on my hands and knees, then into a sitting position against the rock wall behind me. My hat was gone and couldn't see my rifle anywhere but when I put a hand to my waist I found that Lucky and my Bowie knife were still there, held in place by the rawhide thong and safety strap on the sheath and holster.
By anyone's measure, I should be dead as fried chicken right about now. I was sure that the bullet that had hit me solid and that I was a dead man when I went off that cliff. I put a hand to my head and ran it along my scalp. My head throbbed with every beat of my pulse and my head swam in pain and the haze that comes with a head wound. My fingers went gingerly along the line of my scalp and I found a deep furrow just above my left ear. The bullet had taken off about an inch and a half of skin and hair and I felt dried blood all along the side of my face. My side had been bruised by the fall and from hitting the ledges on the way down. I looked up and counted myself lucky that I had fallen where I had. That cliff was all of a hundred feet or more. I had evidently hit a slab of rotting talus on the way down and then bounced off a small ledge after the first had slowed me down a bit, and luckily the bottom of the cliff was mostly soft sand that had drifted with the winds and formed a sort of bank at the foot of the rock.
The furrow on my scalp didn't bother me much aside from the headache and after feeling my ribs I found that none of them were broken, although one of them felt like it was bruised, but the numbness in my leg bothered me. It was getting darker by the minute and it was coming on to nightfall. Soon the air would become cold, maybe even to the point of chill, and I would need to make good time if I was to make it to shelter. I felt along my leg and found no blood on the pants nor anything that felt like a broken bone in the areas that I could feel. Everything from the shin down was numb, but the tingle of feeling was returning to it slowly. When I decided that it was not broken, I started to stand up and then found the reason for the numbness. The heel of my boot had been shot off. Looking around in the dim light I could see white scars of bullets on the rocks and divots in the sand where others had hit. Someone on the edge of the cliff had been shooting down into the rocks to try and finish me off. In falling I had rolled under a boulder, though, and I had been shielded both from view and from most of the shots from above.
Quickly I looked around for my gear and found that most of it had followed me down the cliff. My canteen and satchel were a few yards away and the pack that I'd fashioned from ropes and canvas from the caravan was still loaded with food. A couple of the cans had been smashed open by the fall and the sack of rice inside had burst open, but the dried meat was still there in its wrapping, as was the tea and coffee. My rifle was nowhere to be found, so I guessed that it was somewhere up on the cliff still. I hated the thought of being out on the open Mojave with naught but a pistol and knife for defense, but I could make due. I checked the loads in my revolver and found it fully loaded, and with it ready in my hand I started out of the rocks and toward the trail that led up to the cabin.
Every step must be taken with care now, for the night would be filled with enemies and I was in no shape to mount much of a defense. My head still ached and the desert swam in swirling waves around me, my side pained me something awful, and walking was awkward with only one boot heel and with my leg still partially numb. I doubted that the legionnaires who had ambushed us were still around, but this place held far worse dangers than men out for blood. Fire Geckos still lurked in the canyons and they would soon be coming out for their nightly hunts, to say nothing of the Radscorpions and Cazadors that sometimes came this far south and the Lakelurks that would be down along the river. If any of them found me now, I doubted that I would offer much more than a nice warm midnight snack.
I followed the trail to the cabin under the cover of the coming night. The cool air made the going easier and I took my time up the rocky slope, stopping often to rest and to let my head clear. I came closer to the cabin and went with my gun in hand and ready for anything. I was maybe a hundred yards from it when I first smelled smoke. As I came closer I though I could see a light in a window, but when I got closer still I saw that it was coals. The cabin had been set afire and the last of the dying embers were still smoldering amidst the few remaining beams and piles of sheet metal that were left. A little plume of grey smoke rose from the ruins, losing itself in the darkening night sky. A dead man was on the sand beside the trail, his clothes gone and his body mutilated. It was Travers. He'd been shot twice through the chest and once through the thigh, and after he was down another shot had been put through his head. He'd made a fight of it, that much I could see from the pile of brass near his body. Across the skin of his chest they had carved three words, "TRUE TO CAESAR".
There was no sign of Boone anywhere. There was blood on the ground and there were spent shells all over the ground, but I saw nothing of him or his gear. I found several places where men had fallen and been dragged away, so the boys had accounted for a few of the enemy. I looked around for my rifle, but it was gone, as were Travers' weapons. I searched through what was left of the cabin for anything useful, but there was nothing. All the food and supplies had either been taken or lost in the fire, as had the ammunition that we'd brought with us or reloaded ourselves. I dragged poor Travers over to the ledge and collapsed a sand bank over him, then marked his makeshift grave with a gecko skull. It was little enough for such a fine soldier but it was the best that I could do. Once that was done I shouldered my pack, shifted my holster to a better position, and with a walking stick made from some of the wood that I'd salvaged from the cabin ruins I set out into the desert.
All sorts of thoughts were running through my head as I went down the old game trail. I knew the locations of the springs and seeps where I could find water, but they would undoubtedly be watched. Most of them were easy enough to find if one knew what to look for. Any good woodsman could find water if it was near, and the men that had ambushed us back at the cabin had to have been first class desert fighters. They couldn't have been the Recruits and Decanii that we were used to seeing. Even the Explorers usually weren't that good. Those men back there had to be Assassins. Every man in the Assassins Corps was handpicked for their ability on the trail, their marksmanship, and their tracking skills. They were all top-notch fighters and hell on wheels with any kind of a weapon, as the gash on my head and the death of Travers had attested. Anyone who could ambush me out of nowhere was a man to be reckoned with.
Mentally, I checked off all the places where I could go. There were few enough, and they were all out of the way and difficult to get to even for a healthy man that was well equipped. I'd been out on the desert for most of my life and made due with little gear for nearly all of that time, but this was one of the few times when I wasn't sure that even I could pull through. I went through a list of the supplies I had with me and I didn't like it. I had a good Bowie knife, a damn fine revolver with just over a hundred rounds of ammunition, a canteen that was full for now, maybe three days' worth of food, and four Stimpaks. Those I would use sparingly and only when absolutely needed. I could make my own in a pinch, but I had neither a workbench or the tools that were needed to do so and out here they could be the difference between life and death.
I dearly wished that I had my rifle. I'd had that rifle for years, ever since I had been a Ranger, and it was one of the best of its type that I had ever seen. The Cowboy Repeater was one of the most common weapons in the Mojave and was carried by the Rangers, the NCR military, prospectors and settlers, and it was a favorite of the Legion and most tribes, but even in the most common weapons there are certain exceptional examples. I'd bought mine on one of the runs I'd made to New Vegas to sell off the crops and Bighorner hides from the farm, paying out most of my share of the proceeds to get it from the Gun Runners. Later on I had paid out for the extended magazine tube, the maple stock, and some engraving on the receiver just for kicks. It held eleven shots and was accurate out to five hundred yard, and at a hundred yards I could put three bullets into a group the size of a Legion denarius with it. It made me angry to think of some filthy Legion bastard having his hands all over it, but there was nothing I could do about it now except to hope that maybe Boone had gotten hold of it before he got away.
Got away? For the first time I thought about what might have happened to Boone. Had he been captured? Had he gotten away clean and even now picking his way through the desert just as I was? Or was he dead in rocky crevice where he'd been cornered by the Assassins or, even worse, was he wounded and suffering while being hunted down like an animal? The more I thought about it, the more I doubted it. Boone was a good man in the desert and a damn tough man by anyone's reckoning. He was First Recon and they didn't come any tougher. Even we in the Rangers gave them due respect. I hadn't seen his rifle or his pack anywhere back there at the cabin, so that either meant that he had it with him or that he had been captured and that the enemy had them. If captured, he would seek any chance at escape. If he was out there and he had his rifle and his gear, then he was one of the deadliest men in the world right about now and he would be waging his own private war right about now.
I walked for about two hours before I stopped to take a rest, for my head was still bothering me and my leg still didn't work quite right. The numbness of shock was gone now, replaced by pain. Every step was an effort and whenever I put normal weight on it a shot of stabbing pain went through the leg and my hip. I ran my hand down my thigh and then my calf, and when I got about halfway down the calf muscle I felt the same stabbing pain that I had felt before. I apparently had twisted or bruised the leg, or maybe even the bone, in my fall and the pain had been masked by the numbness of the shot that had taken off my boot heel. I put more weight on the other leg and used my walking stick to support me, keeping my right hand free to use my gun if and when it was needed.
I went for a couple more hours, picking my way through the rocks and the brush as I went down into the valley. I went south and followed no trail, taking many rests, until finally I found what I was looking for. I had seen the place before and remembered it, for wandering men have a memory for good campsites or places that can be easily defended or concealed. It was a hollow in the rock that was partly concealed by a clump of creosote bush and a few Joshua trees. There was a sort of cave formed by an overhang of the rock in the cliff that fell away from the plateau above me, not a big one but maybe a dozen feet deep and about ten feet wide. I was dead tired and it was as good a place as I was likely to find, so I crept into the little cave, gun in hand in case of trouble, and when I found the place empty I sprawled out on the soft sand. I lit no fire and made a quick supper of some jerky, dried fruit, and canteen water.
When or where I fell asleep I couldn't say, but when I opened my eyes again it was morning. The sun was just peeking over the eastern horizon and the desert still had the cool feeling of the night on it. I was dead tired and dearly wanted to sleep more, but I knew that I could not stay here. As concealed as this place was, it was still too exposed to put much faith in. my enemies were somewhere out there and they would show no mercy if I was found. I needed a place where I could sleep, where I could find some food and shelter, and most importantly I had to have water. Already I was feeling thirsty and my skin was becoming dry, and when I touched my tongue to my lips I found it scratchy as a piece of sandpaper.
I lifted my canteen for a drink and found that there was little enough left in it. It had almost no weight and when I shook it to gauge how much water was left it sounded like there were only a few swallows left, if that. I dearly wanted a drink, a long one, but when I opened it up I limited myself to a small swallow that just barely wet my mouth and throat. I chewed on some more jerky and dried fruit and put a pebble in my mouth, and then I was off again.
The spring that I was aiming for wasn't much more than a mile or two away, by my reckoning, but by the way I would have to take it would be closer to three miles. I would have to follow the game trails and the dim paths where no man would usually go, staying out of sight and in the deepest of cover to avoid inquiring eyes. I looked with longing at the river down below the cliffs to the east of me, ogling at the sparkling flecks of light that danced along the water as it made its way to the south and eventually to the Gulf of California. That water was cool, clean, and tasted good, but I didn't dare head for it. If they had any brains at all the Legion would have at least one or two riflemen watching from the cliffs for anyone that came to the river for a drink. To go down there would mean a good drink, but it would also mean certain death.
My head was starting to feel better. The haziness was gone and the headache was starting to subside, although there was still some pain in my temples and every now and then some small noise or the glare of light from a stone or from the distant river would send a shot of pain through my brain. My leg was feeling better as well and after walking for an hour or so I found myself using the walking stick less and less until eventually I was using it almost none at all. I reached for my canteen a few times for a drink, but I took only small sips. There was little left inside, and I knew only too well that I would need every drop. Already the desert was robbing my body of moisture, with the sun starting to beat down mercilessly and raising sweat beads on my face, neck, and back that stained my shirt. My tongue felt like a dry stick in my mouth and my lips were split and cracked from the heat. If I had to guess, I'd say that it was upwards of a hundred and twenty degrees right about now and probably hotter deeper in the valley.
I saw no tracks, nor any evidence that men had come this way in a long while. Men leave a mark upon the land like no animal ever would, leaving signs of their presence on almost all things. Broken twigs, tracks, disturbed earth, little pieces of trash or scraps of food, overturned rocks, and many other things. Once I saw a broken twig hanging from the arm of a creosote bush, but the edges and inner wood were dark with age and the normally sharp points of the broken wood had been worn dull by wind and blown sand. It was an old break, probably months old. On a rocky ridge I found an overturned rock that had been kicked over sometime that day or the day before, but when I looked around for signs of whoever had turned over the rock I found the tracks of a large coyote. The game trail that I followed for several hundred yards showed signs of use by geckos, coyotes, Mole Rats, and Mantises, but nowhere could I find the tracks or indications that men had been around.
It was hot, my head was aching, and sweat trickled down my forehead and stung my eyes and cracked lips. The sun beat down on me from above and between that and the rough terrain I found myself stopping to rest often and sometimes just sitting in the shade of a rock or a clump of Joshua trees. Normally I would be covering this distance inside of an hour, but the rough terrain and the threat of attack slowed my progress. My throat was raw by the time I came close enough to smell the water and when I lifted my canteen for a final drink I found it empty. It was none too soon. I could smell the moisture on the air and I could hear the faraway trickle of a stream on stones, and when I worked my way down into the little area I could see the little basin where the water collected.
The spring was located in a kind of glen that was shaded by high rock walls on three sides and by a thicket of bunch grass and barrel cactus on the other. There was some banana yucca growing along the little trickle of water that flowed out of the rock basin and I could see the bright yellow cactus fruits in the brush. The spring itself flowed out of a cleft in the rock that had been opened long ago by some forgotten convulsion of the earth, forming a little sort of cave that was maybe three feet wide and ten or eleven feet tall and from which water flowed in a tiny stream that reminded me of a faucet. The water flowed into a sort of natural rock basin, a red and brown stone bowl that had been formed by countless centuries of water flowing from the spring until it formed a shallow bowl for itself. The water was shallow, not even a foot deep at the deepest, but it was enough for me and the flow was constant.
I cupped up the water in my hand and took a drink, loving the feeling of cold, clear water filling the skin and membranes of my mouth and throat with life-giving moisture, then took another long drink and splashed some of the water on my face and down my neck. I wet my handkerchief tied it around my neck, the coldness of it feeling like pure heaven, and after dumping out the last few drops of water that remained in my canteen I put it in the rock bowl to fill.
My position here was a good one. The brush that covered the entrance to the glen was thick enough to screen it from the outside, a grove of young mesquite trees provided a measure of shelter, and from the rocks beside the entrance the field of fire was excellent. A man that could climb to those rocks would have a good view of the surrounding area as well. I laid out my blankets and my pack underneath the few trees that stood off in a corner of the glen and set up my camp, then went to work gathering some fruit from the yucca and the cactus. Once that was done I retrieved my canteen, now full, and filled the little pot that carried in my satchel and made coffee. The warm liquid felt good after the long walk and I felt it invigorate my tired muscles. I threw some of the rice I had left into my little cooking pot and soon had a good meal going. Once I had eaten and lay sprawled out on my blankets, my gun near at hand, I felt much better.
It was now that I set to thinking about my situation. I had been ambushed and wounded, Travers was dead, and Boone was somewhere out on the desert if he had not been captured or made it to safety. The Lucky Jim cabin had been burned and with it most of our supplies and our main base of operations. I knew that it was a foolhardy thing to trust to one location as a base and supply point, but the desert had simply offered no alternative. I found myself thanking whatever higher power there may be that Angeline had not been with us on this trip. If she had been killed back there then it would have been a loss from which I would not recover. Boone could handle himself and he knew his way around the desert and the valley, and he knew of this place jus as we all did. If he hadn't made his way here by now, then it was likely that he was either on his way or that he was headed to some other safe haven in the hills. I doubted that he would go back to Novac or try to get to safety. Not, at least, until his ammunition ran out.
Mentally I checked off my supplies. I still had a couple days' worth of rations, plenty of ammunition, and my canteen. I had water now, and the food that I had brought from the caravan could now be augmented by the fruits, roots, and whatever else I could get on my own. Animals would be coming to this spring to drink and I could get myself some fresh meat if I stayed put long enough. Stayed put? Now that was an idea. This was as good a place as any to hole up for a couple of days and let the enemy wear themselves out searching for me. I had water, food, and shelter here and there were trails which would lead me to safety under the cover of the brush if I had to slip out, and what's more a man that doesn't travel leaves no tracks. I had covered my trail here with every trick and device that I could think of and I doubted that they would find enough of it to lead them to me. They may find this place by accident, but it would take a minor miracle to achieve that. I only knew of it because of an old prospector who told me of it when I was a boy and he had stayed the night at our farm, and he had said that no other man he knew of had ever found it aside from him.
Somewhere in the line of my thinking I managed to drift off to sleep. I was tired from my walk and I had a good meal in me, and laying in the warm shadows under the trees made me feel almost at ease. No man should ever feel completely at ease in the desert, and in a situation like mine such a feeling could prove fatal, but it was enough that I managed to sleep. When I opened my eyes again the sun was sinking into the western sky and I could feel the coolness of evening coming over the glen. Night comes quickly to the high desert and there is little or no twilight. Immediately I knew that I hadn't just woken up of my own accord. There was a feeling of unease on me that I couldn't explain and after a moment I realized that the wrens were no longer singing in the brush. Those birds sang almost constantly at this time of day.
My hand acted all on its own and grasped the butt of my revolver, and then I was in the brush and watching for any movement, and sign of life. Something had awakened me, of that I was sure. Whether it was some small noise, the cessation of the wrens' singing, or some instinct that had subconsciously warned me, I could not say. Something was out there in the brush just beyond the entrance to the glen. Something or someone had spooked those birds into silence and something had tipped me off that there was danger around, and out here the only thing that it could mean was that an enemy had arrived. I checked the loads in Lucky and found it loaded, and then I sat there in the brush with my eyes and ears pricked.
Minutes passed by like hours and still I saw nothing. The sun continued its slow descent into the west, coloring the desert with an outstretched hand of red and golden fingers that made the desert come alive as it never could in the plain day. The mountains and cliffs streaked with color and the clouds hung like tufts of pink and gold smoke against the sky. Any other time it would have been a sight of unrivaled beauty, but right now I had little inclination to appreciate it. My eyes scanned every inch of the glen, searching for movement, and my ears listened into the stillness of the evening for any sound. I held my gun ready with my thumb on the hammer and finger on the trigger.
For several minutes there as nothing, no movement or sound from the brush, until finally I saw a small movement. It was just a small movement that might have been the wind or some small animal, but there was only a breath of wind in the little glen and I knew that there were not any other animals in the area that could have made the movement. The darkness was gathering and the walls of the tiny glen became black and mysterious. First it was just an arm of the brush twitching slightly, and then after another minute or so I saw the dark form of a man come out of the creosote bush and start for the spring. I could see that he was armed, that he was moving in a sort of shambling manner, and he was crouched low. He went down into the brush beside the spring near the rock basin, sat for another few minutes, and then finally he went down to the water to drink.
I slipped down into the tall grass and eased my way down into the glen again, moving carefully and testing every footfall before putting my full weight down. I went with my gun still in hand and ready for a bullet to come out of the darkness at every step, for out here the only men that were likely to be out and about were likely to be enemies. I doubted that there would be only one man in such a remote place, unless he was a scout, and where there was one there would certainly be others. I crept through the creosote and tall grass until I could see him more clearly in the moon and starlight. I kept my gun trained on him and searched the brush for anything that might indicate danger, but so far he had done nothing but to squat beside the water and scoop up drinks of it with his hand. He sat with his rifle in his lap and kept his right hand on the stock while using his left to scoop up the water. I didn't see a canteen on him, but he had tossed a bundle down beside where he sat that looked to be made of canvas and rope just like the one I had been carrying. That was when I saw the red beret that he wore.
I eased Lucky back into the holster and cupped my hands, then gave the call of a desert wren. I chirped and whistled, which piqued his interest, and then I repeated the sound twice more. The three of us had used that call several times on the trail and when hunting or setting up ambushes and we all knew it well. Boone started to lift his rifle at the first sound, but then eased down again and raised a hand to the brush where the sound had come from. I rose up carefully and returned the gesture. I went down to the water basin and had a drink myself and then without a word I led off through the brush to my camp. Some of the food that I had cooked was still hot and he ladled some of it up and ate it slowly as a man that has gone hungry often does.
"Good to see ya Boone," I said after he had finished off what was left of the rice and two cups of coffee, "I figured you for dead or the river by now."
"I could say the same for you. I saw you go off that bluff and thought you were done for. As soon as you went down they came out of the rocks and lit into us. Travers got off a few shots and I saw one or two of them go down before he got hit. Is he alive?"
"No. They took all of his gear, stripped him, and then carved him up."
"Bastards! He was a good man. I'll be taking a few scalps for that."
"You and be both. How did you get out?"
"I worked my way into the rocks and played hell with 'em for a while. I know I got two of them and I'm pretty sure I scored a hit on another one, but those guys are good and they wouldn't let me get a good sight picture. They almost tagged me a few times and I caught a ricochet in the leg. I've been having a hell of a time these last couple days. I remembered you talking about this place and the spring, so I went for it. I have to say, you're the last person I expected to see out here. I thought you were a dead man for sure."
"It takes a lot to kill a Ranger. They've been tryin' to kill me for years and they haven't done it yet. Let me take a look at that leg."
He stretched out on his blanket and rolled up his pant leg and while he put water an to boil I pulled back the rough bandage he'd put over the wound. The wound itself was on the back of his thigh just above the knee. The bullet had torn through his pant leg and torn away the flesh of his leg for a good two inches. The wound was jagged and torn, so the bullet must have deformed after hitting the stone and had gone through the skin like a rusted blade. I'd seen ricochets like that tear men up something awful had used that tactic a few times myself. Shooting into a rock wall or a ledge that was above or behind an enemy could bounce bullets or shards of bullets into them and could potentially create worse wounds than if they had just taken the bullet in the first place. I cleaned out his wound and dressed it with a fresh bandage, and then we both crawled into our blankets and went to sleep.
For a couple days we stayed in the glen near the spring. We gathered fruits and roots from the area and on the morning after Boone arrived I killed a Fire Gecko, so we had fresh meat. we went to the spring and gathered all the water we could carry so that we could let the animals come down and drink if they were a mind to. Man smell and our strange movement could drive animals away from the water and the shelter of the glen, which for them could easily mean death, and I wanted no creature to die because of our presence. We covered what few tracks we made and we avoided shooting or any large noises and when we made a fire it was always in a sheltered place away from our main camp and it was always before nightfall when a fire would not be noticed. The weather was hot and heat waves danced in the distance, but aside from that the weather was fair. On the second day we heard the distant rumble of what sounded like thunder, but no storm came.
After three days Boone's leg started to feel better and I gave him half of one of my Stimpaks so that the healing would speed up. We had both decided that it was time to move, for we both knew that our enemies would be out on the hunt and that, given time, they would find this place eventually. We cleaned our weapons, we erased any sign of our camp, and just before daylight we set out into the desert. We made our way across the valley to the cliffs that overlooked the Colorado, where we turned north toward Nelson and the Legion camps that we had found on our last foray. Everywhere we saw the signs of our hunters. On every trail that we crossed I could see the tracks of sandals and the telltale indications that men had passed by. Twice I saw the tracks of what looked like NCR military boots as well, which was odd. I knew that Legion Explorers often wore NCR boots to cover their passage, but there was a chance that it could have been made by NCR troops. NCR didn't come into this valley as a rule and anyone that might have come out here was either lost or moving against their will.
It took little effort to see that there had been a hunt made for us. By my guess, there had been thirty or forty men out on the desert looking for our sign, and thanks to the hidden valley and the spring back yonder they hadn't found it. Most of the tracks were of the regular studded sandals that the average legionnaire would wear, but every so often I found the tracks of boots and rough shoes like I'd heard that the Assassins wore. Most of them were from conquered tribes from the east, many of whom wore boots made of raw leather or animal skins, and they wouldn't be wearing the standard issue in such a high rank. They had been traveling in groups of about six or seven men each. Sometimes I would see the outline of a rifle butt where someone had kneeled or leaned to get a better look at the country.
Something about the tracks struck me as odd. The older tracks from a few days ago all looked like those of men on the hunt, with men scattered here and yon scouring the country for our sign, but the newer tracks were different. Here and there I found the tracks of larger groups of men that had gone south through the valley, and in a hurry too. They hadn't stopped to scout the land or to hunt for sign like the others had. It seemed like those later bunches had just been in a hurry to get out and get shut of the country. Those later groups were larger as well. Where the hunting parties had been six or seven strong, these were groups of ten or more men at a time. Some of the tracks were deep, as if the men had been carrying a heavy load. Packing out supplies and in a hurry, and the tracks were all those of men wearing Legion sandals.
We traveled through the day and into the evening, searching for either the hunters or the groups we had seen the tracks of, and we swung a wide arc toward the north and northeast. The Colorado shone in the valley down below the cliffs, the water catching the flecks of light that danced on the ripples and the gurgles of water that ran over the rocks and the logs that had drifted down from the high country and gotten stuck on the stream bed. Any other time it would have been a beautiful sight, one that I would have gladly sat on the rocks and watched for hours on end, but right now I had other business to attend to. Boone still had a slight limp, but the Stimpak had helped his leg and he was feeling much better after the travel. All day we followed the lay of the land and every now and then we tried to set up an ambush on one trail or another but to no avail. The trails were empty and the enemy was nowhere to be found.
When it was coming on to evening I turned to look toward Nelson. I had looked toward that town a hundred times while walking through the valley or while setting up ambushes along the trails, but this time there was something different about it. There wasn't anything particular about it, but this time it seemed like something was just off. For whatever reason if felt like I should go over and have a look at the town, even though I knew that to do so would mean almost certain death. Boone looked off toward the town and I could see that he saw it too. We couldn't see the town itself for the high butte that rose up between us and the buildings, but there was just something in the wind that was different.
We were camped in a cluster of rocks just off the bluffs and were chewing on the gecko meat we had dried when we saw the campfire. We saw it at almost the same time and knew that it looked out of place. It was a faint glow in the distance and positioned just below the edge of the butte where Tehatticup Mine would sit and the old road into Nelson would run, but lower down off the rim rock and almost at the floor of the valley. I knew that there had been a camp there before and that it was a good spot for one, but the larger camp farther up on the butte had made it useless to camp there. Who would be camped there? The Legion, certainly, but why camp there and on not at the mine where the supply depot had been?
Curiosity got the better of us and as one man the two of us packed our food away and started for the little dot of flame against the darkening cliff. We had roamed this area numerous times and I had come to know every rock, tree, and shrub like it was my own and so our approach was silent and unnoticed. When we came closer in to the camp I slid Lucky out of my holster and eared the hammer back while behind me I heard Boone flick off the safety on his rifle. Suddenly I dearly wished that I had my own rifle back. I couldn't remember a time when I hadn't had a good long gun in my hand when going into a fight, but I had a fine pistol that I knew would shoot true and somehow that gave me reassurance. We slipped through the brush and got to within thirty yards of the camp, and around the fire I could see them.
There were four of them, all decked out in the best armor that I had ever seen on a legionnaire. One of them had the full metal dress of a Centurion, although he lacked the house and clan markings to indicate a true commander, while another wore the signature wolf's head and sunglasses of a Vexillarius. The other two were both wearing Prime armor but were facing away from me and I couldn't rightly distinguish rank. I could see what looked like a Decanus helmet on the ground near one man's feet. These would be the Assassins I had heard so much about, probably the same men that had ambushed us, shot me, and killed poor Travers. I could see their rifles in their hands or leaning on their packs, and among them I could see my own Cowboy Repeater. The long tube and the checkered stock were dead giveaways and I would know the engraving on the receiver anywhere.
They were all sitting around the fire when we came close in to them, completely unaware of our presence. I could hear them chattering on in their language but the distance was still far enough that I couldn't quite make out what was being said. Looking at them as they talked and sipped on their strong tea, I could feel my anger welling up. The man with my rifle was more than likely the man that had shot me and left me for dead. Legionnaires were famous for taking trophies from their dead enemies. It would be like them to take my gun and claim it as his own once he thought that I was cold and dead down in the canyon. I wanted my gun back. I wanted to get them for what they had done to Travers. I wanted the man that had shot me dead. I wanted them all dead to pay for what they had done to me, to Boone, to the Mojave as a whole, but most of all I wanted to face them. They had laid for me and my friends, they had killed one of my men, and they had shot me and left me for dead, and in my book that merited at least that they let me visit for a while and read them from the Book.
Without a word to Boone, I got up and started walking right into their camp. I had put Lucky back in my holster and was walking completely nonchalantly, as if I was just out for an evening stroll, and when I came into view they all started for their guns. My calm demeanor caught them off guard, though, and when I just kept walking they all sort of calmed down and just stood there stupefied while I walked right up to the fire and poured myself a cup of tea, with my left hand, then blew off the steam and took a drink. It was strong, dark, and invigorating. They all looked at me like a Gecko looks at a Mole Rat. These men were killers one and all and I looked from one to the other through the steam of my tea, meeting their cold, steely-eyed looks with one of my own.
"Howdy, boys," I said to them, "how are things?"
"Why are you here, profligate?"
"Why, to be neighborly. I seen you boys was out here having some supper and I thought that I might just come on over and say hello."
"Have you come to surrender?"
"Surrender? Now why would I do something like that? I just stopped in for a cup of tea."
I looked over at the one that held my rifle and sort of casually looked down at it. The man met my stare with some of the coldest eyes I've ever seen. They all wanted to try me, that much I could see, but they also saw the way they my right hand hung at my side and just naturally sat over my gun butt while my left hand held the cup.
"That's a fine repeater you've got there. Reminds me of one that I used to have. How'd you come by it?"
They all looked at me now with something approaching amusement, although I doubted that any of these boys had ever been more than a little amused in their lives. These men were warriors through and through. All of them had probably been war chiefs in their respective tribes or clans at one time and had been born and bred for battle. It must have seemed a hell of a thing for me to just come waltzing into their camp like it was nothing and to just come up to their fire and start chatting away. Tribals can be right notional when it comes to such things. A man that shows no fear and carries himself like a warrior can command a lot of respect among Tribal fighters if he shows that he has sand. None of them answered my question, so after a minute or so I sipped the drags of the hot tea in my cup and gave them another hard look.
"See, I used to have one a lot like that one until recently. I took a little spill down the cliff back at the Lucky Jim and I was so clumsy that I went and lost it. In fact, it looked exactly like that one."
The man that held my rifle started to lift it and at the some time I saw the man in the Centurion helmet reach for the .44 in his belt. I'd been expecting that. I'd been talking nice and easy and real conversational-like, but my every sense had been locked on them from the moment I walked into camp. I saw the muzzle start to raise and I flicked the drags of my tea into his face and drew my revolver. That tea was still steaming hot and the distance was not more than seven feet from me to him, so most of it went right in his face. He cried out in surprise and dropped the rifle, grabbing at his burning face, and in the same instant I drew and fired into the Centurion. I didn't aim but just drew and fired from the hip and I saw the first bullet flatten against his chest piece, then the second tear into his throat. His gun spat fire and his bullet splattered sand at my feet as he went down, dead before he hit the ground.
I felt something whiz past my ear as I drew and fired and the Decanus' chest blossomed with crimson. The report of Boone's rifle was almost lost in the sound of my shots and those of the Centurion's magnum. The Vexillarius dove for his 12.7mm Submachine Gun near the fire and on pure instinct I spun around and thumbed off three fast shots. His body jerked in midair and he crumpled just before hitting the ground and when he hit he flattened out on the sand and didn't move. The one with the now burned face had gotten over the initial shock of my first attack and he rushed at me in a fit of blind rage. I tried to bring my revolver to bear, but he was too fast and before I knew it he was on me.
He hit me solid, his shoulders low and putting his full weight into the blow. His shoulders hit me in the midsection and I went sprawling, losing hold of my gun as I fell, but I hit the ground rolling and as I came up I slid my Bowie from its sheath. He rolled to his feet with the grace of a Mantis and I saw a Combat Knife in his hand. Both of us held our blades low and with the cutting edge up, our off hands held ready to catch or deflect the other's blows. We both knew that this would be a fight for keeps and that only one man was going to walk away from here.
We circled each other warily, each looking for our chance. He knew what he was doing and I was in no itching hurry to close with him. That knife was like an extension of his body and he held it with the grace and ease that comes from long familiarity. I had a feeling that this man was a knife man through and through.
His first attack was fast and expertly delivered. He stepped in quickly and his knife flashed at me, the tip of the blade flicking out like the tongue of a Nightstalker. I pulled back just in time and made a quick move of my own, flicking my knife out for his ribs. I felt the blade touch skin and it came back bloody. His side turned red with it and his armor was slick, but he showed no sign of slowing down. Again his blade darted out at me and I parried it away, and when I tried for a stab to his ribs again he threw me with a rolling hip lock. I hit the ground on my shoulders and he came in just as I was rolling to my feet, and when I saw him coming I threw both feet out and smashed my boots into his knees. He buckled and fell, but again he was up in an instant and coming at me. I kicked sand in his face and he shook his head to clear his eyes, and when he looked away I stepped in and drove my knife into his guts. His armor was thick and made of boiled leather around the abdomen that would turn away most knives, but that Bowie was made of the best steel in the world and I kept it sharp enough to split a hair. I felt the blade find flesh again and felt the resistance of the thick leather, and as I stabbed I stepped in and put my full weight into the thrust. I heard him grunt and his left hand clapped down my knife hand in an iron grip, then I saw the flash of firelight on the blade his own knife as it came up.
I moved all on instinct and just barely missed getting a blade in the throat. I saw the tip come up and scrape against the skin of my cheek as I grabbed for his wrist. My hand grasped his and for a moment we fought for control. My knife was still in his side and he held my hand there, but now I had control of his own knife hand and we each put our full strength into the fight. I felt my grip being pushed back little by little, his strength matching mine bit for bit. He was tough, he was strong, and he was a fighter. I tried to kick his foot out from under him, but he blocked my kick with his calf and almost took me off balance. He tried to slip his boot toe under my ankle to trip me and I brought my heel down hard on his instep. He grunted in pain but didn't loosen his grip on my wrist. I could feel his strength getting weaker from the loss of blood, but my own was starting to wane as well.
It took all of four or five seconds for all this to happen. By then the exertion was enough to make me sweat and my muscles were burning from the force that I was putting on him and him on me. I could feel my hands getting weaker and my grip on the knife and on his wrist was starting to fail, while his was only slightly behind mine. We were both in top physical condition and I could see the muscles bulging out of his short sleeves, flexed and constricted with effort now just as mine were, and I could see that the loss of blood was starting to get to him. I could feel the warm flow of it coming down the blade of my Bowie and along my hand and the side of his armor and tunic were wet with it.
I twisted the blade to open the wound and he let out a low scream of pain, then brought my knee up and into his groin. He buckled and started to fall and I withdrew the blade from his side, then as he went down to one knee I slashed to the side and brought it across his throat. He let out a choking scream that lost itself in a gurgle of blood, and then he fell face first into the soft sand. His body gave a twitch, his heel dug into the sand, and then he was dead.
It was all over in less than a minute. Four men lay dead around the fire, their gear was scattered all over the place just as it had been before, and out of the shadows I saw Boone come into camp like a ghost from the night. His rifle was ready in his hands and he held it low and ready for a shot, but there was no need. All four of the Assassins were stone cold dead. One look at their gear and I could see that they were outfitted with best gear. Their weapons were immaculate, their gear was pristine, and their food stores were of the best dried and preserved meats and fruits. That tea they were drinking was the best, not the strong stuff that the rank and file carried in their packs.
My rifle was beside the body of the man I'd stabbed. His blood was on the stock and I wiped it away with my sleeve. Boone didn't say a word as he went to all the bodies and collected dogtags, or what passed for dogtags in the Legion. The man he'd shot had been dead before he hit the ground, the bullet going cleanly through the heart and then the spine. Whatever anyone else had to say about Craig Boone, the man could shoot. I checked the loads in my rifle and found it fully loaded and when I opened the action I smelled fresh gun oil. At least that Legion bastard had had enough respect for a good weapon to clean it. Quickly I stripped the ammo from the dead men and gathered up there weapons, put those that we could carry into a sack and breaking the stocks of the long guns over boulders. It took only a minute and then both Boone and me melted into the darkness again. We knew that the troops in town would have heard the shooting and would be coming along pretty soon, and we intended to have a nice warm welcome for them when they arrived.
I found a spot among the rocks where I had both cover and concealment and I settled down to wait. After a few more minutes I saw the forms of men coming out of the desert and into the circle of light that the fire gave off. I lifted my rifle to my shoulder and started to take up slack on the trigger, but then I let go and stared at them. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Those men had just come from Nelson, sure enough, but they were all in NCR uniforms! I looked from one to the other and confirmed it. They were all NCR troopers, armed and outfitted as such, and when they came into camp they immediately fanned out and policed the bodies. Boone came out of the dark with his hands up and his rifle slung over his shoulder and a moment later I came in as well. They were as surprised to see us as I was to see them.
"Hell, boys," I said, "you are a sight for sore eyes. Where'd you come from?"
"Nelson. We're the new residents, so to speak."
"Yeah, man. We finally booted the Legion outta Nelson. I just hope we can defend it this time."