I couldn't hardly believe it. The Legion out of Nelson? Suddenly the thunderclaps that we had heard the other day made perfect sense. It wasn't thunder, it was the echo of the guns. It must have been one hell of a fight if the NCR finally dislodged them. Memories of the fall of Nelson went through my head as I looked at the troopers that had come down the hill. Of the six of them, four of them were fresh-faced boys from right out of the Hub or some other California city back west, the corporal looked to have seen a little action by the way that he held his rifle and carried himself, and the big sergeant I recognized from the first Battle of Nelson. His left eye was milky and there was a scar cutting down across it, and the last two fingers on his right hand were missing from where a Legion machete had taken them off.
The six of them policed the bodies and gathered the weapons, which they bundled into a sack and tied them together with the ammunition, then they led the way up to the town. It was nothing like what I remembered. The old sandbag wall was gone, taken down and replaced with a simple earthen bank and a short fence, and on the lower shelf where we had made our first line of defense I could see the outline of defense towers in the flicker of firelight from the campfires. I could smell coffee and meat broiling over the fires that burned around camp and the smell of food cooking wafted from the old sutler's store where it looked like a makeshift bar had been set up. The last meal I'd had was that dried gecko meat and some weak coffee and the smell of the Brahmin steaks and potatoes cooking with greens made my stomach think that my throat had been cut. I looked over at Boone and I knew that we both had the same thought in mind.
It was getting late when we stepped into the bar and the last of the crowd were just finishing their meals. This was a military camp now and all would have to rise early come morning, so now with the changing of the night watch the troops would be going to their bunks. The cook was still in and he came out of the kitchen wiping his hands on his dirty apron when we came in. He nodded toward a table in the corner and we sat down, our rifles leaned against the wall and the table, and a minute later the cook came over with a pot and two cups. The coffee was dark and strong, melting the stiffness from our bones. A couple minutes later he came back with two plates of steak and potatoes and a tray of fresh bread.
Neither of us had eaten much more than what we could shoot or catch since leaving the glen, and when the food arrived both Boone and I dug into it like starved Nightstalkers. A truly hungry man will always pick at his food when it's given to him, savoring every morsel, but that comes after many days after a man's stomach has shrunk and his body is craving nourishment. The steaks were thick and juicy and the potatoes were fried to a golden color, and when I tried a piece of the bread it was warm and delicious. Whoever this cook was, he knew his craft. We put away the food and all of the pot of coffee, and after we were done he came back with an apple pie that had been cut into quarter pieces and he dished up one for each of us. Within a minute or two we had both finished and he scooped another up for us.
"Mister," I said to him, "you certainly know how to set a table."
"Men can't work or fight well on poor feed."
"Well, sir, you have my compliments."
Boone didn't say anything, mainly because of the mouthful of pie that he was working on, but he raised a hand and gave a nod that confirmed his agreement. I finished my piece and my coffee and the cook cleaned our plates from the table and when we left we put caps on the table for the meal. Both of us were stuffed to the gills and definitely ready to hit the sack.
The night sky was alive with stars when we went outside again and the air had the cool feel, almost chill, that was common on a desert night. It never ceased to amaze me how the desert could go from well over a hundred degrees in the shade in the daytime to almost freezing once the sun went down and the moon came out. Many a night I had gone to camp with a couple of extra blankets over me to fight the chill only to wake up the next morning sweating from the early morning heat. Boone led the way to the edge of town and we set up a camp in the rocks just outside the fence and we laid out our bedrolls and set our gear and weapons ready to hand, and when we crawled into our bedrolls the both of us were instantly asleep.
Dawn came, as it always does, far too early for my taste. The sun was just cresting over the mountains when I slipped out of my blankets and wiped the night sweat from my guns, checked their loads, and slung my gunbelt around my hips. Boone was still asleep and I left him be. He was more tired than I had been and his wound was still not quite fully healed, despite the Stims that the town medic had given him the night before, so he needed his rest.
Rifle slung over my shoulder and a piece of gecko jerky in my lips, I strolled down the streets that had been my second home just a few months ago. Almost everything about the town had changed since the last time I was here. Most of the buildings had been painted with Legion graffiti, the remains of red and golden bull banners hung from every pole and lamp post. Most disturbing of all, though, were the three crosses that had been erected on the platform in the town square. I walked near them and I could just see the dark spots that had been blood stains on the arms and pinnacle of each cross. I had heard some stories about what had been done to the prisoners that the Legion had taken on the front and brought here. Back at Forlorn Hope that last time I had heard a few troopers talking about a time when Ranger Milo and the Courier had gone down into town and had to put some poor bastards on those crosses out of their misery. I knew that Jubal could make a shot like the ones that were talked about in the camps and the posts along the front and all across the Mojave, and when I looked up at those crosses I was glad that he was one of the best shots I knew. No NCR trooper deserves to get plinked to death with some old varmint gun.
The sutler's store had once again become the hub of activity and the center for information and gossip. I didn't know the man that was behind the counter when I walked in, but I saw several troopers that I recognized from the first Battle of Nelson and from Camp Forlorn Hope in the interim. Most of them recognized me and a few of them raised a hand or gave a nod when I went past them. I had a reputation among the NCR and the Legion, not to mention the settlers and independents across the Mojave, and though I didn't like it I knew that it was just something that happens when a story gets told enough times. I'd heard the stories of that trek across the desert that Angeline and I had made across the desert, although I hadn't heard her name mentioned very often. Everything that had happened since then, it seemed, had been the talk of the Mojave.
I had never wanted the name of gunman or killer. I was good with a gun and I'd had to kill quite a few men in my time, always out of need and because the situation called for it. War made men do things that they never might have done otherwise, things that would have made them sick and disgusted any other time but would have cost them their life if they had not done them. I never wanted to make my name or my living with a gun, but the cards fell the way that they did and I had unfortunately been born in a time of blood and dying. Men are shaped by the times they live in, and mine had made me what I was. I hated the fame that I was getting, but I had learned to live with it. I almost pitied Jubal. He was known far and wide as the "deadliest man in the Mojave", and everywhere he went these days people knew him by sight.
As I sat over coffee in a corner of the common room of the store, little details of the battle revealed themselves in the conversations around me. Apparently it had been Jubal that led the attack, bringing men from Forlorn Hope after most of the elite troops had been sent into the valley to look for Boone, Travers, and me. The camp had been up in arms after our attack on the supply depot at Tehatticup Mine and our repeated raids on their supply lines and Caesar himself had even personally sent the elite Assassins across the river after us. I couldn't help but chuckle at that. They say, "Be proud of your enemy and enjoy his success," so I guess that having the best men in the Legion's roster sent after me personally was a form of flattery.
The garrison in and around Nelson had been diminished lately by repeated raids by us and Jubal on his own before he joined up with us at Novac, by sending men into the valley to look for us, and with raiding parties going out or harass the countryside to the west. When we defended this place against the Legion, we had over a hundred men dug in and loaded for bear and the Legion had brought more than three hundred legionnaires against us. From what I could gather, there had been less than thirty or forty men defending the town when the NCR took it back and the force that Jubal had led over from Forlorn Hope had been comprised of less than forty troopers. One man was joking about the fight and I had to give him a hard look. He said the fight had taken only fifteen minutes and that they had sent those "Legion pussies packing". He was a young man, barely out of his teens, and was probably fresh out of boot camp. That was the only reason that he didn't get a broken nose.
Boone came in a few minutes later, followed closely by Jubal. The crowd in the store gave a subdued shout of praise when Jubal came in and gave Boone only the most subtle of nods. They came over to my table and I poured them each a cup, and for a moment we were the old crew again. Jubal asked about what had happened out in the desert and we told him about the ambush, our flight from the cabin, and about Travers. His face went sullen when I told him that last part. Travers was a good man and a well liked one, and his death was a loss to all of us. We all knew the life and we'd all been through it enough times to know that every man has his time. A soldier's life is a short one, more often than not, and when a comrade meets his maker all that's left to the rest of us is to honor him in our own way.
Jubal finished his coffee and we went outside again, leaving the hot, close air of the store for the cool breeze coming off the river and the shimmering heat waves hovering over the distant hills. We all had a smoke as we stood on the corner of the walk, Boone taking a pack of cigs from his sleeve and Jubal stuffing his pipe while I took out the makings and rolled myself one. For a moment we all stood there, just looking at the camp and the hills and the river and taking in the warm air and the long, far scenery of the desert. This land had always had a strange power over the likes of us, over all men in most ways, and sometimes a man just has to sit and look to really appreciate the beauty and majesty of the land that so many were fighting and dying over. Many of my friends were buried in his land, a lot of my blood was in the sands that covered it, and quite a few men that I had laid low myself had their bones in this earth and fed the next year's growth with their flesh. It was strange how such a desolate land could captivate so, but it was nothing new.
As long as men had walked this earth, men had fought and bled and died for it. This had been the land of the Great Khans before they were pushed out by the NCR, and long before the Khans it had been the territory of old America. All over the Mojave there were the ruins of the United States and the empire that had ruled here before the bombs fell and ended the Old World. Before the United States there had been the Mojaves and the Apaches, both great warrior tribes, that had lived and fought here for centuries before the coming of the white man. Farther back still there had been the Navajo, the Hopis, the Zunis, and the Anasazi, all great and proud peoples that had lived here, built lives and cities here before being lost in the sands of time as so many peoples had been in the past. How much blood was in this land? How many peoples had lived and died here? How many hundreds or thousands of warriors had laid down their lives for the desolate land that we now called the Mojave? Many a time I had sat and wondered that very thing over many a campfire.
It was almost funny to think that all of this fighting was over a stretch of land that for the most part was pretty much useless. Few crops would grow here aside from those that were grown beside the river where the soil was fertile and where the plants could get enough water. Corn and squash would grow here if tended well enough and I had seen some local farmers and the NCR sharecroppers near New Vegas growing beans and buffalo gourds and the like. Aside form that this desert wouldn't support much more than the native stuff. Creosote, sagebrush, barrel cactus, and the Joshua trees were just about all that grew here without man's help and the Mole Rats, Nightstalkers, Cazadores, and the various species of Geckos had taken the place of the animals that I had seen and read about in Old World books that had once roamed this desert and the lands beyond it. The bombs had wiped away almost all sign of civilization here, and in the two centuries since their fall nature had taken back its old territory and left no sign of man's mark aside from the ruins and skeletal remains of the Old World.
It seemed to me that everywhere man went we tried to leave our mark on the land. We built up town and cities and our monuments to our gods and to our own greed thinking that they would stand forever, but nature always had her own plans. These hills, these mountains had stood for countless centuries and endured nature's fury for long ages of the earth before man and our foolish ideas had ever even existed. I had seen the cracks of the earth and great gouges of the canyons where the ground had split apart in some great upheaval of the earth in a time long ago.
Far to the north there were great stone pillars that towered hundreds of feet above the surrounding desert, thrust up from the ground during the forming of the earth, and farther still to the north there were deep and wide volcanic craters covered in black lava flows and obsidian glass that would shred a man's boots in minutes if he tried to walk on it. Once there had been long flows of molten lava that had covered the land in fire and carved out what would someday be the mountains and canyons that we now roamed. It had been hell on earth then, and even in those primordial times nature had sat idly by and watched, for she knew that all things come to fruition in time. All storms pass eventually. The summer heat gives way to the cool winds and heavy rains of the winter, the old plants die and rot away to give the promise of new life for the year to come, and the old and sick died so that the young and the strong could live. Men were but a tiny thread in nature's tapestry and somewhere back along the line we had forgotten that. We thought that we could conquer nature when deep down we all knew that in time we, too, would pass on and leave little sign of our passing but our bones in the ground and the ruins of our once great ideas.
"Well," Jubal brought me out of the clouds again and back into reality, "I think I need a drink. I'm buying."
"In that case, I'll go along. Come on, Boone, I could use a whiskey."
I threw down my smoke and crushed it out with the toe of my boot, then the three of us started across the street to the bar. The place was just starting to fill up when we walked into the smoky atmosphere and were greeted with the smell of cigar smoke, strong liquor, and the distinct scent of sweat mixed with the faint aroma of gun oil. Most of the men in the room were civilians, since most of the soldiers were carrying out their daily duties, and from what I could see all of them were armed. For the most part they were the civilian laborers that worked around the post, the few volunteers that had been taken in to supplement the NCR troops already in the town, and there were a few prospectors and wastelanders who had just come in for a drink and meal on their way to parts unknown.
The cook was there again, his features standing out more clearly now that I was seeing him in daylight. He was a big man with thick, hairy arms and a patch of dark beard on his face that was in dire need of shaving, a balding head that had a few sparse left on the dome, and from what I could see he looked to be a stout man that had seen his share of trouble. I'd noticed a slight hitch in his step the night before when he brought us our food, but now I saw the metal brace that he wore on his leg. I could also see a few faint scars on his right forearm.
We all bellied up to the bar and Jubal threw down caps for the drinks, and without a word the big man threw on a dirty apron that was hanging on a peg and got down a bottle and some glasses. I sipped my whiskey and turned around, my back against the bar and my hand within inches of my gun, and took a look around the barroom. Just as I expected, the faces I saw were familiar ones. I'd never seen them before today, but I knew their type well. They were the workers, the tradesmen, the farmers and the settlers that were filling up the Mojave these days, the men that would someday build homes and farms and towns out of this wild land and bring some measure of civilization to these wild lands. The rest were the men that I'd seen on a hundred trails and cracked old roads. They were tough men, for the most part, making their living on the speed of their guns and the sweat of their brows. I'd known many like them.
One man in particular stuck out to me. He was a big man and well set up, wide through the shoulders and narrow at the hips, and when I looked at his shirt sleeves I could see that they were bulging with muscle. He wore a black Desperado Cowboy Hat over a shock of dark hair that hung down over his shoulders. He wore the back and grey clothes of a Troublemaker with a double set of bandoleers filled with shells for his Hunting Rifle, which leaned against the bar, and he wore the .44 on his hip like he knew what it was for. A tough man, and a well traveled one. I could see stones on his belt that looked like turquoise from Arizona. A man could only find that in Legion territory, but I could tell that he was no legionnaire. I knew right away that I had never seen him before in my life, but yet there was something familiar about him that I couldn't quite place.
I took in the room with quick, casual glances that measured the room and the men in it almost immediately. Most of the men that stood at the bar or sat at the tables were of the same type and seemed to take no interest in us at all aside from the usual nod of recognition. The man in the black Troublemaker outfit, though, seemed to be taking a strange interest in us. Rather, he seemed to be taking an interest in me.
Several times I saw him looking toward the table where we were sitting, always in short glances that immediately shifted whenever I seemed to notice. Something was off about him and all of my senses were telling me that this was a man to be wary of. The way he carried himself reminded me of a Nightstalker on the prowl and the few times that I could see his eyes through the shadow of his hat I could see that there was nothing good there. Who could he be? A man that I had crossed sometime in the past? Had I killed a relative of his in the line of duty? The stones on his belt denoted that he had been to the east of and possibly been to Arizona under the Legion, so it was completely possible that I had killed a legionnaire that had been a brother or a cousin or even a father of his. Many outlaws also hailed from that area and it could have come from a mission or manhunt that I had been on in the past. The worst thing about it was the fact that I recognized him. What was it that I recognized?
Boone and Jubal talked of various things while I sat quietly and sipped my beer, mostly about the battle for the town and the things that had preceded it when Jubal had been called away to Forlorn Hope. I listened with only half interest. He talked about going to Helios One after fresh supplies, getting First Recon to come down from Camp McCarran, and a few fights he'd had with the Fiends along the way. I'd had some dealings with the Fiends but I had never been into their territory before like he had. I was interested, but at the same time my attention was on the man at the bar. He was talking to some of the other wastelanders and nursing his third double shot of whiskey. What was it about him that drew my attention? He still glanced my way with those hard eyes and finally my curiosity got the better of me.
"Hey guys, you want another beer?"
"Sure, I'll take a shot," Boone replied, while Jubal just held up his mug that was half full, so I downed what was left of mine and started for the bar. I moved through the gathering crowd and bellied up to the bar, sort of casually ending up right next to the man in black.
I had never been one to sidestep a problem. If there was a scenario that looked like it could go bad, I preferred to go right in and meet it head-on. This man looked like he was looking for trouble, although I knew not why, but he was looking for trouble with me for whatever reason and if he wanted it then I didn't intend to keep him waiting. I went up to the bar and put down the empty mug, then motioned to the bartender for a shot and a brew. The man in black looked over at me with a look that had nothing short of pure hatred in it. He had it in for me, that much was obvious, and I had no idea why. There was still that hint of recognition. Why was it driving me nuts and what could it be?
"Nice day out today, ain't it?", I said in the most casual tone I could muster. He didn't give even the hint of recognition, although I caught what might have been a grunt of derision. The bartender came back with the mug and shot and I tossed down caps for the drinks, but I lingered at the bar and waited for the man in black to say something.
"Been anywhere interesting? I noticed that turquoise on your belt. It's nice. Where did you get it, if I may ask?"
"I got in Arizona, near the Grand Canyon. I was doing some work out there."
"Hell no. Call it repossession work."
That explained it. The Legion had their own bandits and raiders, although they were a far different stamp from the ones that we had out here. The Legion had a strict set of laws when it came to banditry, laws that more often than not resulted in any bandit that was caught in the field being immediately nailed to a cross and left on some ridge to rot. Public execution was also a favorite method of getting their point across. Any raider that operated in Legion territory was a man that shouldn't be trifled with. This was a man that had been through the ringer and had survived when many another had become a skeleton on a hill.
"Must be a lotta caps in that kind of work. I've seen a lot of that kind of work done around here and I really don't like it. Makes me wonder if we've ever done business."
"Not here. You met someone I know a while back, though. I believe you went on a long walk in the desert with him."
"I've been on quite a few desert walks with a lot of people."
"How many of them died"
That put me back a little. I'd made plenty of desert treks in my time, mostly on patrol or in the pursuance of my Ranger duties, but there had been few of those walks when I'd lost a man. I'd seen men die and I'd lost a few friends out on that desert, but never one that had been to the east or ever mentioned having a friend or relation that operated in Arizona. For the NCR or a Ranger, that would have been a point of pride. Most of my desert walks had been solos and the few times that I had had partners along with me there had been few times when I had lost a man. Except for that one time . . . .
"Well, I'm sure you've lost a few men. I hear you're something of a hell raiser."
"I've heard that said about me a few times."
"And that you're the kind that always comes out on top when everyone else takes the bullet."
"I've heard that too. It's horse shit."
"That's not what I heard. From what I hear, you've left a few men dead in the desert. Good men that might have gone on living if they hadn't met you. Some of them might have even been better men than you."
"I can agree with that. I've known plenty of men that were better than me."
"Too many to name."
"Like a man named Cartwright? From Nipton?"
"I don't know any Cartwrights. I've only known a few people from Nipton, and the last time I was there it was in ruins. I've only known a few people from there."
"And you took them across the desert to Novac, right? I heard all about that. The great Dan Weathers leading a troupe of haggard children and one soiled whore across the desolate Mojave and stood single-handedly against the Legion horde. Is that about right? I didn't think so. I think that's all bullshit. I think that you didn't stand there by yourself. I heard that that whore, Angeline, I think her name was, was right there beside you and that she took down a few of those Legion bastards herself.
"There was another man there, too, I heard. I heard that he stood there and shot his gun empty before he took a bullet through the chest. I also heard that you left him there for dead and then just walked off from his body to let the coyotes chew on it for awhile. That doesn't sound like the steely-eyed hell on wheels killer that I've heard so much shit about. To me that sounds like a yellow-bellied coward that doesn't deserve to draw the same air as real men."
I could feel the rage building up within me at being called a coward, a remark that would have almost certainly resulted in gunplay at any other time, but something about his remark took me back a little. I could hear the silence of the bar, that had once been bustling with conversation, and I knew that they all expected to see a gunfight at any minute. There had been only one man in the group that Angeline and I had led across the desert from Nipton, and he had died fine like any man should. He was also barely a man.
"Listen, friend, I don't know what your problem is, but you're starting to get on my nerves. Any other time you'd be dead as fried chicken right now just for what you said about my woman, but I want to know what you're talking about. I only remember one man from that walk, and he died like a man."
"You led a boy into a man's fight and let him die."
"Reese was a good man and he died fighting for his friends."
"So you do remember his name? That's something in your favor. The only thing."
"I didn't know his name was Cartwright."
"It was. Reese Edward Cartwright. He was my son."