Never in my life had I wanted to draw on a man so much, but at the same time I almost wanted to reach out and hug this man. Ever since that day on the desert when those Legion bastards had ambushed us and killed poor Reese, his death had been dogging on my conscience. I had gone over it a thousand times in my head and thought it through as many times over again. What if I hadn't drawn on them? What if I hadn't given him the gun? Did he have a family? Was there anyone out there that would mourn him or miss him now that he was gone, or had his family been killed back there in the massacre at Nipton? Well, at least one of those questions had been answered. He had a father, a tall, strong, bull of a man that looked like the kind that would charge Hell with a bucket of water, and now that man was looking at me across a smoky barroom with a hatred in his eyes that I had only ever seen in those of legionnaires.
The more I looked this man over, the less I wanted to have a straight-up fight with him. There are damn few men in this world that I could say I'm afraid of, but this man struck me as one of those few that I would step aside for. He stepped away from the bar and stood with his hands ready at his sides, his ivory-handled .44 low and strapped down to his thigh, and for the first time I got a good look at his frame. He was powerfully built, his arms and shoulders thick with hard muscle, and he moved with the ease of a predator on the prowl. He carried himself like a seasoned fighter, as such he was, and there was a certain poise about him that told of a complete control that I'd seen in few other men.
There was something else there too, though, something beyond the control. There was something behind the hate in his eyes that spoke of an inner viciousness and a terrible rage that I was sure came to the light of day more often than was necessary. He struck me as the kind of man that was quiet and reserved most of the time but was a regular hell on wheels when he was angered. He was angry now, that's for sure. He was wound up like a coiled rattler and looked twice as deadly, and I had a feeling that he was just as swift with that big revolver of his. I stood there with my hands on the bar and well away from my gun, wound just as tight but being careful to make no sudden movements. If ever there was a time for walking softly, this was it.
The barroom had cleared out faster than I would have believed. The room had been full of soldiers and wastelanders only a minute before and now it was empty aside from myself, Jubal, Boone, the man in black, and three other men at the corner of the bar. The bartender had vanished into a back room, but I had a feeling that he wouldn't go far. I had a feeling that those three men weren't there out of coincidence. They had been hanging back around the corner of the bar drinking and talking amongst themselves but seeming to keep a comfortable distance from Cartwright. They were a salty lot, all of them tough men that had the bark on. They would be his gang or at least some acquaintance of his. I wasn't too worried about them, for I knew that Jubal and Boone would keep any bystanders from butting into our business. Whatever happened here would be between me and this Cartwright.
"Well, Weathers," he said to me, "what's it gonna be? Either you draw your gun and go down like a man or I shoot you down where you stand like the yellow dog that you are. It makes no damn difference to me."
"Cartwright, there's been many a time when I would've drawn on you for that remark but this time I just don't want to. I liked your boy. He was a fine boy, a hard worker, the kind that this country needs. If he'd lived a few more years he would have made a damn fine man. He was tough, smart, and he had guts. When those legionnaires came out at us he didn't hesitate. He upped with that rifle and took the fight to them like any fightin' man would have. I regret that he died that day, but I don't regret having him there. He fought for the people he cared for and he didn't back down. I was proud to fight beside him."
"You drew down on those red-bellies, Weathers. You opened the ball and you started them shooting. As far as I'm concerned, you're as much to blame as if you had pulled the trigger yourself."
"Cartwright, I told you that Reese did his own -"
"Don't you say his name! You don't have the right to say my son's name, you scabby son of a bitch! I came here to kill you and I intend to do it, now draw your goddamned gun before I kill you where you stand like the yellow rabid dog that you are!"
"I'm not gonna draw on you, Cartwright. I've been wanting to do right by him ever since that day, and I'll be damned if I be the one to put his father in the ground. If you want to settle this thing between us, then we will, but we'll do it without guns."
Slowly and deliberately I slipped my left hand down to my gunbelt and undid the buckle, then held it up by the holster and tossed it on the bar. My knife was there, too, and when the belt was on the bar I was left completely unarmed. My rifle was back at the table where Jubal and Boone were sitting and to either reach for my gun or to go for that rifle would have meant death. I could see the puzzlement on Cartwright's face when he saw me do it, but after a moment it was replaced by a strange sort of delight. He was a powerful man and one whose hands were scarred and roughened by many a fistfight.
"Fine, Weathers," he said as his lips parted in a sort of crooked, devilish smile that revealed a row of white and well kept teeth under his mustache, some of them broken, "you wanna commit suicide, be my guest. I wanted to shoot you down, but I reckon this'll be much better 'cause no man alive has ever beaten me with his fists."
He unbuckled his belt and tossed it on the bar, and then he hit me. I had been waiting for the move to come and had been prepared for it but he moved with such a speed and grace that it caught me off guard and before I had time to really react his massive fist was coming up and at my face. I've always had better than average reflexes and I'd been told that I was a fast man, but my reflexes were barely fast enough for me to evade the main force of the blow. I backed away just in time and caught the blow on the shoulder, a fierce and powerful one that almost shook me to my heels. He brought up his left and went for my guts, but I swatted it down and came up with a right that caught him on the cheekbone and split his cheek to the bone.
If he noticed the pain or the blood, he didn't show it. He just kept on coming in like the bull Brahmin that he was and he came in with both fists flying. I ducked the first blow and grabbed his right wrist as his fist came in for my face, twisting it down and away and forcing him to turn and when he did I him twice in the kidneys before he back-heeled me in the shin. My leg folded underneath me and I went down to one knee and immediately I knew I was in trouble. A man like Cartwright was one that actually enjoyed fighting and one that probably took real pleasure in doling out pain, and with a man like that the worst thing to do was to go down. When that happened then the poor soul on the ground got the boots and heels once he was down. I'd seen men beaten to death that way. Think it can't happen? A fist or a boot can be just as deadly as a gun when they're used with the right skill. I'd seen men die from having their skull bashed in with a man's fists, necks broken by boot kicks, and so on and so forth. I had no doubt that this man had seen that too, and probably done it a time or two.
I went down to my knee and he spun around on his heel, anchoring himself on his boot heel and swinging the other up and around. I rolled down and under the kick and swung my own leg up and at the back his knee. He came down with a crash and tried to roll over and to his feet but I shot out my boot again and it caught him square in the chin. I rolled to my feet and jumped on top of him, meaning to finish him off. He was quick though and brought one arm up to block my attack while the other hammered my guts. I felt his ham-like fist crash into my ribs, then again and again and once I felt sure that I felt one of them crack. I smashed him in the face over and over again, cutting the skin and breaking his nose, but he wouldn't be beaten. I planted myself with my knees and put all my strength into the blows. I thought I had him then, but he brought up his legs and wrapped them around my torso and then he began to squeeze hard.
There was powerful muscle in those legs, muscle born of long miles of walking and running over the mountains, valleys, and burning deserts of the wasteland, and when he squeezed his knees and heels in on my body I felt the breath go out of me. I hit him hard in the face again, then again and again, but I could feel myself getting weaker. He squeezed harder and harder and he knew that he had me. He intended to crush me to death.
I knew I couldn't break free of that iron grip, nor were my punches having the desired effect, so out of desperation I grabbed for his throat and clinched down hard. My breath was coming short and my muscles were starting to fail me, but I've always been an uncommonly strong man. All my life has been little more than hard fighting and hard work with pick, shovel, axe and jerk line, and I knew my own strength would almost equal his. I squeezed his throat hard and I could tell that it was starting to get to him, but it wasn't enough. The world began to swim and I knew that if I was to live beyond the next few moments then I had to get him off me. His face was distorted in pain but I could see the cruel triumph in his eyes at seeing my weakness. He had me, alright, and he was going to enjoy watching me die.
I had to do something, and whatever it was it had to be soon. I had one chance, and I took it. I shot out my left hand and dug my thumb into his eye socket. He screamed in terror as my thumb caught his eye and I started to press down, and he knew that I wouldn't stop. The human eyeball can only take a few pounds of pressure before it bursts like a grape and well he knew it, so as the pressure came down harder and harder he let go his legs and rolled over and away from me. I gasped for breath and half fell to the floor before I staggered to my feet and pulled myself up by the lip of the bar.
My insides were on fire and I was sure that I had at least one cracked or broken rib, and when I touched my tongue to my lips I tasted blood. My lips were sore and I was sure that they were smashed to a pulp. His fists were like iron and he had power in them. I'd gotten my licks in as well and I knew that he was feeling it, but neither of us were in any mood to quit.
I heard a scramble of feet at the end of the bar and when I looked to the spot I saw those three men I had noticed before starting off of their stools and at least one of them made a move for his gun. Boone and Jubal kicked their table over and came to their feet, both with guns in hand. Jubal had his .44's trained on two of the men and Boone held his rifle low and in his hands but ready to come up for a shot if need be, and at this range neither of them could possibly miss.
"Easy there, gents," Jubal said just after the pretty little clicks of his gun hammers died away, "this is a private affair."
"Put 'em down, boys!", Cartwright bellowed through his busted lips, "this is my fight! Any of you starts anything and I'll cook and eat your liver!"
The three of them backed up and at a word from Jubal they all dropped their guns and stepped back. Cartwright swayed a little and bent down to spit out a tooth. I could feel a few loose ones in my own mouth, but a few days of soup would fix those. If I lived that long anyway. He came to his feet and smiled at me through is broken teeth, the blood running down his lips as he did so.
"So," he said, "that's the famous Courier? I've heard of him. You've got some friends in high places."
"Maybe, but I fight my own battles."
"You do that, for damn sure. I haven't had a fight this good in years. It'll be a shame to kill you."
"I told you that I didn't want to fight you, Cartwright. I don't want trouble."
"That makes one of us."
He came off the bar again with the same speed and grace that he'd had before, but this time I was ready. My fist shot up and caught him on the nose as he came in, smashing what was left of it back into his face, and my left came up right behind it and hit him in the chest. He tried a wild haymaker and I ducked under it and hit him in the ribs. His elbow came up and I saw it coming a second too late, and when it hit I felt it cut my cheek. I hit him in the ribs again and shot a hard right up to his face that set him back a step. He tried to stomp on my instep but I pulled my foot back just in time and kneed him hard in the groin. He grabbed for my shirt and I locked my hands on his thick arms and we grappled. He was strong and powerful, but our strengths were almost matched and neither of us gave ground.
I planted my feet and he his, the both of us pressing against the other with all our strength. He tried to hook my leg with his boot toe, but I sidestepped and avoided it. He tried a hard right, but we were too close and I stopped his arm with my own. We wrestled each other for what seemed like forever but could only have been a few seconds, then he drew his head back and butted me hard in the forehead. I saw stars for a second and I let go my grip just before the blood came down over my eyes. We backed up and squared off, more wary of each other now, and by now we each knew the other well enough to be careful. He was a bull and he knew how to use his strength well, a rare thing in a brawler like him. Most men that were that big and strong rely too much on that strength and never learn how to fight, I mean really fight. He had enough brawls under his belt to have learned more than enough, though, just as I did.
I knew that I had to end this fast if I was to come out on top. I knew that he would try to rush me again but he would be more careful this time. He knew that I could handle myself with my fists as well as my guns, and I knew that he relished the thought of beating me down and crushing me. He was a killer through and through and he knew that he could beat me once he wore me out. And he was wearing me out. Most of the fights I'd been in had been over within a few seconds. This one was different in more than one way. This man was good, very good, and he knew it. What's more, he knew me just as well as I knew him. He would know my way of fighting and a shrewd man can gauge his opponent well from such knowledge. He had seen me fight and he knew where I was weak, and he would know how to exploit it.
We circled each other warily, each searching for an advantage and each knowing that this would be the end of it one way or the other. He held his hands low and ready to grapple with me again and I knew that if he laid his hands on me again then that would end it. He would crush the life out of me and toss my body out with the trash with little or no thought. I was tired and I was getting weaker by the minute, and he knew it well. He was tired too, but he didn't have the same stabbing pain in his ribs and the tortured feeling in his lungs that I had. I was favoring my one side and he could see it. One more good blow there would break my rib and maybe even push it into my lung, which would surely kill me. I couldn't go down, either. I had been lucky once on that score, but if I went down again I knew that it would mean the boots to my skull and my ribs until I was dead and gone.
He came in with a rush, just as I knew he would, and when he came in I threw up a hard left to smash his lips again, and it was a stupid move. His hands came up and grabbed my arm with that same old iron grip and he twisted it around hard and fast. I moved with him and went down to one knee to take away his momentum, but he came in with me and brought up his right hand while his left held my arm. I knew he was going to snap my arm at the elbow, a move I'd seen used before, and once it was gone I would have no chance at all.
His arm was coming down when I turned my shoulder around and kicked out hard with my foot, my boot heel smashing into his kneecap. I heard it crackle and he screamed in pain, and as he fell his hands lost their hold and I threw up my right for his throat, palm open and fingers spread wide, and I hit him in the Adam's apple with the webbing of my hand. His scream was stifled with a sort of choking sound, and as I stood up I hit him again in the same place. His voice lost itself in a gasping cry and his hands went to his throat, fighting to open it and let the air flow once again. I could have broken his trachea, but I didn't hit him quite that hard. It was enough to stop him, and that was all I wanted to do. He laid there on the ground, fighting for breath, and I half stepped, half fell over to the bar and poured myself a drink. The whiskey tasted good, even over my broken lips, and I splashed some on my face to cleanse the cuts on my cheeks. It stung like sin, but it would do me good.
Jubal and Boone stepped over Cartwright, who was too busy hacking up his lungs to care much about anything else, and collected the guns that those three others had dropped and then came over to me. Those three were still at their spot at the far end of the bar, taking it kind of easy and watching us with keen but careful eyes, not ready to start anything else but not willing to leave their boss behind either. I poured another drink and downed it, then poured another and took dabs of it on my fingers to drip into my wounds. It hurt, bad, but it was the best that I could do as far as antiseptic went. My muscles were making me a thousand promises of pain to come and I knew that the pulp that was left of my lips would bother me for a week or more, but I had had worse and would probably have it again before long. Jubal and Boone didn't say a word. They knew the life and they understood it well enough. They both had enough scars of their own to prove that they had seen more than their fair share.
Cartwright pulled himself up by the lip of the bar and leaned against it, half collapsing from it and his breath coming in ragged gasps. I poured a drink into an empty glass and slid it down to him, and he took it and tossed it down. I was still nursing my wounds when he came over to me, his shirt in rags and blood dripping down from his chin and onto his collar. His face was just starting to swell and bruise and one eye was already swollen shut. He looked a sight, but there was something in the way he looked at me. The hate was gone, replaced now by something else that I couldn't place.
"You could've killed me," his voice was hoarse and raspy, "any time you wanted to. I was down there helpless and you could've killed me free and clear. Why didn't you?"
"I told you, I didn't want trouble with you. I didn't want to hurt your boy, either. He was a good boy and I was proud to fight beside him. I didn't want him to die. I didn't want any of them to die. I didn't even want to be saddled with them in the first place, but it happened. Those Legion bastards killed your boy, not me, and the men that did it are all long since dead. The ones that I didn't kill myself bought it at some little raider camp outside of Novac. I wanted to bury him, but there was no time. I wanted to write his folks and tell 'em what happened, but I didn't know he had any. I thought his family was dead back there in the massacre in Nelson.
"If I could go back in time and stop it, believe me I would. I've seen a hundred men die in the desert and in just as many ways, but I never expected to see a boy die like that. He deserved to have his chance at life. He deserved to grow tall and make his place in this awful world. He didn't deserve what came to him, but I can't change that. For what it's worth, I'm sorry."
"His mother lived in Nelson. She lived there with her parents after she left me. They never took to me and my rambling ways. We lived along the border up in Utah before I started raiding the Legion for swag. Lucy took out and she took Reese with her. She thought that living out here in the Mojave would take her far away from the Legion and all the bloodshed. Funny how things turn out."
"Life's a peculiar business, Mr. Cartwright. It doesn't pay much mind to our wants and wishes."
"Jessup. Call me Jessup. Any man that can fight like that and still have some decency about it is a man that I cotton to. If it's all the same to you, I'll buy the drinks."
"As long as you pay the doctor, too."
"For the both of us."
The next few days were pretty uneventful. I spent two days in the medical building recovering from the fight, with Cartwright in the next bed. His animosity had been taken down a few notches by the beating I'd given him, and the one he'd given me, and we talked a great deal during our down time. He told me about his wife leaving him and going to live with her family, of the letters that she had written him asking him to come and be with her and their son, how Reese had missed him, and that when he had stopped getting them he had come down from the Utah border and found the town in ashes. He said that it had taken a lot of looking and a lot of fighting to find me, in which time he had killed more than a few legionnaires and raiders to get to the truth of the fight that had taken place out there in the desert below Broc Flower Cave and the ambush outside of Novac. He had even tracked down the other kids that we had brought out of the desert at Old Mormon Fort and talked to them.
Boone hung around camp, but Jubal was again called away on NCR business. Apparently he had taken quite a role in the goings on around the Mojave and the NCR often used him for the most dangerous missions. He dropped in and said something about going to Red Rock Canyon to talk with the Great Khans, but that was all he would say. It sounded like a damn suicide mission to me. The Great Khans were a salty bunch and I had already heard about his fight in Boulder City with some of them that had gained him a bad reputation with them. I would have felt better if Boone or I could have gone with him, but he wanted to go it alone and my ribs still needed time to heal and my skull had taken some hard knocks that the doctor wanted me to wait on. It wouldn't have been a good idea for Boone to go along, anyway. He was First Recon and ever sine the Battle of Bitter Springs the Khans had always had a particular hatred for that unit. After all, it had been the First Recon snipers that had set up in the hills and cut down the retreating Khans as they fled the settlement. It was only later that they found out that most of those they had shot had been women and children.
My face needed ten stitches for the cuts and scrapes I'd taken and the doctor gave me a couple Stimpaks to heal my internal damage, but the cracked rib and my busted knuckles would have to heal on their own. Cartwright's eye looked better after a couple days and the doc fixed up his throat, and after giving him a more thorough examination he found that I had broken a couple of his ribs and busted up one of his kidneys pretty good, plus dislocated his knee. I had a few more injuries too, but after a few days in the infirmary we were both fit as fiddles.
News came in of the actions along the front, and most of it was good. Since we had taken back Nelson, the situation had improved all over the Mojave. The Powder Gangers had been all but wiped out, thanks largely to Jubal, and their stronghold at NCRCF had been retaken and put back into operation, the rail lines were up and running again and supplies were coming in regularly, and the situation at Camp Searchlight had been greatly improved as well. The news that I heard was that two platoons had been sent there from Mojave Outpost and that they had cleaned out the town of ghouls and mutated animals. Another force was being sent to stake out Cottonwood Cove and cut down on the raids that had been plaguing the Colorado Valley since the fall of Nelson, and of course there was a flood of reinforcements being sent to the Dam.
Other news came in from New Vegas, and not all of it was that good. The Securitrons that had always patrolled the streets of the city had somehow become militarized, their faces changing from those of policemen to soldiers and their weaponry becoming vastly improved. Mr. House was becoming more and more public in his dealings and the old feuds between the clans and gangs of the Strip and Freeside had quieted down. It was widely whispered that the leadership of the Omertas and the Chairmen had changed and that the White Glove Society had turned over a new leaf about their secretive policies. New Vegas and the NCR had never been on the best of terms, but it seemed that they were getting along better now that the tide of the war was turning or at least appeared to be doing so.
Of the Legion, there was little word. The Second Battle of Nelson had cost them their only real strategic foothold on the NCR side of the Colorado, although their losses as far as personnel were nowhere near as bad as what they had been in the initial taking of the town. They still had Cottonwood Cove, but now that the NCR's attention could be focused on it and the Dam that post was pretty much useless. Reports were still coming in about roving bands of Assassins and raiding parties penetrating even as far as Novac and the ruins of Nelson, but there was no word of any major incursions. There were rumors of massive troop movements on the east side of the river, even of Caesar calling up his new commander, Legate Lanius. He was a butcher of the first order and one whose very name could instill fear into whole tribes. If he truly was in the Mojave, then it had to mean that something big was about to happen.
When the doctor finally let us out of the infirmary, Cartwright and I parted ways. His three men were still in town and he met up with them once we were all healed up, leaving town in the night and disappearing into the desert like the creatures of the land on which they walked. He left without a word, but left a note that simply said "See Ya Around". If I knew his kind, he would be somewhere around when the showdown came. And I knew that it was coming. There was just too much going on for the end not to be getting close. The armies were moving, the field was being set, and the battle was coming.
I have been around battle and bloodshed all my life and after a while a man like me comes to know the way of such things. I had a feeling that whatever was coming now was going to be the final showdown, the last fight to decide the fate of the Mojave. Both the NCR and the Legion had invested and lost too much for either of them to back out now. The war was at a stalemate for the moment and the lines had returned to what they had been before the Battle of Nelson, but the armies were now in position on both sides of the river and there were alliances being made by both sides. The final battle was coming and when it did I had a feeling that it would be fought at the Dam.
Hoover Dam, that damned spot on a map that so many hundreds had fought, bled, and died over for the last five years. To me it was nothing more than a place that was talked about in the camps and in the trail news, a place of blood that had cost us more than enough good men. Any time there was an attack or a turn of bad luck where more men or materiel would be needed in the Mojave, anything that had come out of California had always gone to the Dam. No matter how much it was needed anywhere else in the Mojave, no matter how we needed more men, more supplies, more bullets, or whatever, it had always gone to that damned Dam. Sometimes I wondered if the NCR really even cared about the rest of the Mojave or not just as long as they cold hold on to that dam.
Boone and I camped just outside of town and bided our time. We had an excellent view of the road to Tehatticup Mine and of the town, and from our campfire we could see the movements of the troops and some of the trails leading into the desert. Our position was excellent and we had ample cover in the rocks along the ridge where we could fall back I case the need arose. Neither of us expected trouble and the danger of attack was pretty much gone since the Legion was gone, but both of us had lived in dangerous country long enough to be ever cautious.
I was sitting over coffee and looking off to the east when Boone came up from town and handed me a letter. It was addressed to me so I slit the envelope with my knife and read it. I recognized the handwriting straight away as that of Jubal. I looked at the postmark and saw that it had come from Hoover Dam and when I asked Boone who ha delivered it he said that it had come by NCR courier. That would be like him, for the famous Courier to send word by courier.
"To Dan Weathers:
Your presence is needed at Hoover Dam, bring Boone. President Kimball due any day. Assassination attempt suspected. Reinforcements urgently needed. Legion movements becoming larger with each passing day. I fear that the final assault may be imminent. All factions now in play. This will decide the fate of the Mojave. See you soon.
- Jubal, Courier"
"Well, Boone," I said once I'd read the letter, "it looks like we're goin' to the Dam."