It's amazing how cool the air can be in the desert, how comfortable such a hostile land can be in the morning. Soon the sun would rise high and the heat would become unbearable, but for now the day was cool and almost pleasant. The wrens called out their song among the Joshua trees and the prickly pear, a rattlesnake slithered through the dry grass in his eternal search for mice and varmints, and somewhere off in the distance we could hear the chatter of a gecko pack. A roadrunner followed us for a while, darting from bush to bush beside our line of march, enjoying our company as we did his.
The terrain was rough south of Echo, and getting rougher with every step. There were places where the ground fell away so steep that it was hard to keep our footing, falling away in a slope that was nearly vertical all the way to the Colorado below. A fall like that would kill a man if he wasn't careful, so all of us minded every step we took. Gibson led the way across the open desert, his aged and experienced eyes searching every shrub, every clump of grass and mesquite for any sign of movement. Enemies were here, that much we were certain of, and in the desert it took only an inch of cover to hide a man. It's surprising how men that dressed all in red and steel could hide at all in this bleak landscape of copper and brown sand and grass, but they could be there and a body would know it until they came out of the brush with a machete aimed at your head.
We followed no trail, no path that could be watched or mined. We kept to the high country now where we would be relatively hidden and have a good view of the land about us. It was an old Tribal trick to stay to the high ground when traveling. Most people stay to the low ground for concealment, but the high ground offers a better view, less chance of a trail being found, and the rocks and ridges offer better cover from bullets. Plus it was always cooler higher up than in the valleys where the heat collects and grows stifling. Our boots left no tracks on the stone and the hard packed earth. We walked with our weapons ready and our every sense alert for danger, knowing that the Legion could be anywhere in this broken country.
From Echo we turned east, following an arm of rocky, broken land that would offer cover and concealment and was unlikely to be patrolled. There was no shelter there, no place to camp except for the place where it joined the flats to the north and the cliffs along the river were sheer and almost impossible to climb. To our right was Long Drop Canyon, as they were calling it now, falling away for hundreds of feet of sheer bluffs and angling steeply up towards Echo and the hills beyond. It was a day's work to cross that canyon and we knew that Legion raiders were out in force, for whatever reason, and that the canyon offered perfect place for an ambush. We all walked with our weapons out ready, stopping often to listen and to let Cooper scan the area through his rifle scope. Cooper was one of the best snipers I'd ever seen, almost matched with me for shooting ability but much more adept at stalking and stealth. He could move like a snake in the brush and have a shot at anything that moved before they ever knew was there.
We had brought ropes and climbing gear from Echo and twice he broke it out to scale high ledges. I hated the climb, feeling as naked as a baby as I dangled against the dark rock with my rifle slung over my back. If anyone had been out there with a sniper rifle, we would have looked something like ducks in a shooting gallery. I climbed the whole way down expecting a bullet to come careening out of space, but none came and we made it safely to the cover of the rocks again.
It was several hours' walk to the end of the outthrust spur of rocky land. We came close to the Cove and found a place where the ground was open and relatively flat, giving a perfect view of the station and of the mouth of Long Drop Canyon. Gibson gave the signal for us to get down on our bellies and we did so, crawling the last dozen yards or so to the cliff's edge. We could hear the sounds of people down in the canyon, the sounds of construction and of dogs barking and snarling. That was strange. There had been no order given for new construction down here and the NCR didn't allow dogs on its posts. I caught the smell of food cooking on the breeze, but it didn't smell like anything that NCR cooks would be preparing. The normal smells at a base would be that of beans, beef, coffee, stews and soups made from native plants and meats, but this was different. It was more pungent, spicier, foreign.
We came to the edge of the cliff and peeked ever so slightly over the rocks that shielded us from view, and immediately my heart sank. I could see the mouth of the canyon, the spring-fed pool that supplied most of the water for the camp, the two-story comms tower and the shed behind it, and the collection of cabins that followed the course of the old highway from the west or were scattered around the dock. The hulk of a half-sunken ship lay directly below us. I looked at the parade ground that should have been empty and cleared for drills and for supply crops, but it was not empty now. Long, red tents covered the whole of the ground, at least ten of them that would sleep eight men to a tent, and there was a chain-link pen built below the side of the tower that was filled with people. Red-clad troops milled around the camp, two platoons of them drilling near the pool and another marching in formation between the rows of tents.
On the river were two barges that looked like something out of the Viking books that my mother used to ready to me as a kid, their long curved hulls sporting high masts and large sails adorned with the Legion Bull. Two of them were tied up at the dock and another was anchored just off the shore. I slipped my binoculars from my satchel and dialed them in for the distance, and when I trained them on the boats I could see more legionnaires filing out of the ones at the dock and still more waiting to unload on the one still at anchor.
"Good Lord in Heaven," Bronson said beside me, crossing himself as he did so.
"How many you figure, Weathers?"
"At least a hundred in the camp, sir, and that many again on the boats. Mostly recruits and veterans, and a decanus to each squad."
"I see a few officers, sir," Cooper said as he looked through his scope, "I see two vexilarii, some prime decanii, and - oh, shit!"
"What? What is it, Cooper?"
"Take a look, sir. On the platform of the tower, just in front of the commanders' quarters."
He passed the hunting rifle to Gibson and he looked through the high-powered scope, all of us waiting for him to explain. I looked for whoever Cooper had seen, but my binoculars were too weak for me to see anything definite. I could see a man in full armor on the platform, the sun glinting from the steel plates he wore and the long sword that hung at his side, but I couldn't make out his face or his features. Obviously he was of very high rank, probably the commander of this force, but I couldn't place him.
"Oh, shit is right, boys," Gibson said after a moment, "that's Aurelius down there. Aurelius of Phoenix."
Now, I'm not a man that scares easy. I've seen shit that would make most men mess their pants and not batted an eye. When I heard that name, though, a cold chill ran down my spine. We had all heard the stories coming out of the east about the campaigns that Caesar and his armies had been mounting on the tribes of New Mexico and Utah. Aurelius had been commander of the Ninth Cohort that had stormed into New Mexico and massacred a tribe called the Red Devils in their 87th conquest. The army had been commanded by Gaius Magnus and had reduced that tribe to just a few dozen out of a population of thousands. There were rumors that the army that had destroyed the Red Devils was coming west for a new push on the Dam. I guess that for once those damn rumors were true. Here I was looking down at half a cohort of Legion troops, all of them battle-tested and fresh out of the fray, occupying a post that just a few days earlier had seemed meaningless. This was no raid or foray. This was an invasion.
"How the hell could they get here?", Grey said, "They couldn't have sailed from the Fort. Arty from the Dam would've torn them to shreds! Where the hell did they come from?"
"They had to have come from the south," I replied, "from the new territories they took recently. They've got at least two centuriae down there, two hundred men or more. That's twice what's at Forlorn Hope and four times what's at Nelson."
"We better skin out of here before somebody spots us. Just ease back now, boys."
We all crept back from the cliff's edge, not getting to our feet until we were certain that we would be concealed by the cliff itself. We were doubly cautious now, knowing that the force down below was well beyond our abilities. That was an army brought here for one purpose, and that was mayhem and murder on a grand scale. All these years we had been worried about an attack on the Dam, but now here they were in our own backyard. How could we have been so stupid?!
As quickly as we could, we turned west and made for Station Echo. We kept to the best cover and the hardest ground where we would raise no dust and leave few tracks. There was no room for error here. With such a force encamped just a thousand yards or less away there were sure to be patrols and raiding parties out. This was an isolated place and too rugged to be called accessible to most enemies, but none of us was prepared to stake our lives on that assumption. We skirted the bluffs that we had scaled before and took the long way around. It added several hours to our trek, but it was worth the time to avoid the risk. It was coming on to dark when we finally came within sight of the junk wall of Station Echo again and we were hailed by a sentry as we approached. We answered and hurried into the post. All of us were happy to back within the wall, as rudimentary as it might be.
Ranger Wilson came out to greet us and offered us some supper. We ate quickly and Gibson laid out what we had seen to him. His eyes went wide when he mentioned that the post had been taken and especially when we told him the numbers that were now encamped there. He couldn't believe it. In fact, we ourselves could still hardly believe it. The two commanders went off to one side of the tent and argued over what was to be done while the rest of us sat off to one side. We could hear them arguing and cursing and barking orders to the comms officer to put the word out, but I ignored them both. I had my own thoughts and my own worries to think about.
That force at the Cove was an invasion force, of that there was no doubt, but where would they go first? What would they do? Would they commit their full force to one attack? Would they splinter off into smaller units and harass NCR and the civilians of the Mojave? If they did attack in force, where would they strike first? Would they march north for Nelson and Forlorn Hope? Would they go west for Searchlight? The damage that they could do was incalculable, not only to the military but to the civilians that inhabited the Mojave. There were still towns and groups that were not affiliated with NCR that couldn't possibly hold off that many troops.
My thoughts went across the desert, over the rugged hills and over the barren flats to the west, all the way to the old compound of Wolfhorn Ranch. At this time of day they would all be cooking beef and fresh greens over the fire, drawing water from the pump well, changing the guard on the wall, the usual chores. They had no idea what was just a few miles away from them. The Ranch was the closest thing to a fortification between the towns of Searchlight and Nipton. And it guarded the old highway that was a needed supply line. If it was taken then things would get very hairy in the Mojave. And my family was there. My mother, my brothers and sisters, my wife . . .
"Sir," the comms officer came into the tent a few minutes after the order was given, his face drawn with fear, "sir, the word has been put out. All posts have been alerted to the situation, but . . ."
"But what, Ranger?"
"But I'm not getting a response from Camp Searchlight or Searchlight proper and there is some kind of interference preventing me from reaching Station Charlie or Nipton."
"What kind of interference?"
"I don't know, sir. Something is jamming our signals. I can't get through."
My heart sank when I heard that last part. No response from Searchlight and interference between there and Nipton? Something was in or around Searchlight that was preventing the radio signals from being transmitted, something either manmade or environmental that could cancel out radio waves. Nothing natural of that sort existed there and there was only residual radiation in the ground. That left only one thing, manmade. It could only be a raiding party or some sort of attack that was carrying a jamming device. No matter what it was, it was nothing that could be good. Something had happened out there, something bad.
I sat and listened while the two old commanders argued over what to do next. Wilson wanted to pull back to Nelson and prepare for an attack, while Gibson wanted to take us out and go find out what it was that had happened to the west. Wilson argued that it was too dangerous to take such a small force to investigate the radio silence and that every man would be needed if an attack did indeed come, which was true. Reinforcements had already been requested for Nelson and Camp Searchlight. Camp McCarran, NCR's headquarters in the Mojave, would surely not skimp on sending out troops this time around. But that wouldn't help the people out west of here. They were tough people by nature and anyone that had lived any length of time in the Mojave knew how to fight for survival, but two hundred legionnaires was more than any settlement could handle. They would be like lambs to the slaughter.
I listened intently as the two commanders talked, and the more I listened the more I felt an idea coming into my mind. It was a crazy idea, some would even call it suicidal, but it was the best one I'd heard so far. Right now the only ideas were to either risk a squad of Rangers chasing wild geese or to pull out completely and head back to Nelson. I thought it out over and over again in my head and time and again it seemed like the best solution. I stood to my feet and took a bold step forward, catching the attention of both Wilson and Gibson at once.
"What is it, Weathers?"
"Sirs, I request permission to go and investigate the situation alone."
"I want to go see what's jamming our radios to assess the situation gather intel. I know the terrain and I grew up at Wolfhorn Ranch so I know the locals well."
"Weathers," Gibson says to me, "I know your family is out there, but do you have any idea what you're asking? We don't know what's out there. For all we know, the Legion is marching in force towards Nipton or even Primm. They could have dozens of raiding parties out there watching every trail, snipers on every ridge, maybe even laying siege to the towns. One man alone is a suicide mission."
"If we take the whole squad then we risk five men and we're more noticeable. Like Wilson says, we'll need every man we can get if they decide to turn north on Nelson. I can get in and get out fast, I know every nook and cranny, and a man alone can slip through any guards a lot more easily than a whole squad. If we all go and get killed then we lose a valuable rifle squad, but if I get myself killed then it's just one Ranger lost."
"What if this was your family, sir? I have to know for sure."
Gibson stood there for a moment and I could see that he was trying to think of an argument for him, but he wasn't having much luck. He thought I was a damn fool for even asking this, and truth be told so did I, but it was the best option we had available. I could already see that Wilson was wrapping his head around the idea. It made sense, it was militarily sound, and if it had been anyone else but me I know that Gibson would have been all for it. I watched him think it over again and again, pulling at his graying beard as he did so. He didn't like it, but eventually he had to admit that it was the best idea he'd heard. A military unit ran the risk of being wiped out or alerting the enemy. A man alone could do better sometimes, especially one that could move without being noticed through country that he knew well.
"All right," Gibson finally said, "we'll try it. Get yourself another canteen and take all the ammo and food you can carry. I want you to head out before dawn so you can get a good start."
I wasted no time. Immediately I took up my rifle and satchel and went to the station's supply cache. I took two boxes of .357 magnums, a spare canteen, and about five pounds of dried gecko meat. Preserves would be too heavy and would make too much noise on the trail. One of the station rangers offers me a bandoleer full of more rounds, which I take with handshake of thanks. I sling it over my shoulder and fasten it to my belt, check the loads in my weapons and fill the tube of my rifle to capacity, grab a couple of stimpaks and radiation meds, just in case, and I'm ready for travel. Ranger Wilson insisted that I get some sleep, and after a little argument he shows me to his own bunk. I hate sleeping in bunks. I prefer bedrolls or sleeping bags out in the open air instead of a raised bunk like this inside a tent. I don't know how I'll ever get to sleep in this thing . . . . .
A hand on my shoulder shakes me awake. On pure instinct I lash out with my left hand while my right reaches for my holster, hanging from the wooden post of the bunk, and just as my fingers grasp the bone grips I see Ranger Wilson's face. I try to calm down, apologize for my behavior, and quickly gather my gear. Wilson tells me that I've been out cold for about three hours. Outside the flap the night is pitch black with a partial moon hanging high in the sky and offering just enough light to see by. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust, and when they do I let Wilson lead me to the wall of the station. I see Cooper set up beside a hole in the junk wall, his rifle aimed through a gap in the debris that forms the wall and his body lying prone about three feet from the wall itself. To anyone outside the perimeter he would be as good as invisible. Gibson is squatting on his heels near Cooper, his repeater across his lap. He stands as I approach and pulls something from his belt, holding it out to me as I approach. It's the squad emergency contact radio. Normally only the squad leader carries one, and orders are always to use them only in times of absolute need. The batteries that power them are hard to come by and even harder to replace, so they were used sparingly.
"Take this," he said as he handed me the radio, "you might need it. If you run into any trouble out there, you make the call and we'll come a runnin'. Report in on what you find and you get the hell back as soon as you can, and damn it all Weathers don't get yourself killed. You're too good a fighting man to lose to some fool goose chase."
"Thank you, sir."
"Hell with that. Take care of yourself out there."
For a minute or two there, the old man actually sounds sentimental. I clip the radio to my belt and adjust it behind my back where it'll be out of the way. A look at the moon tells me that I've only got a couple of hours until sunrise. Soon it will be full dark when the moon goes down just before the sun comes up, and that will be the best time to catch a little more rest once I'm clear of the post. Gibson and I shake hands, as do Cooper and I, and then with a running start and a short leap I'm up and over the junk wall and into the cool desert night.
It feels like a completely different world outside the station. My every sense is alert and tuned to the night. My rifle is in my hands and ready for action and my revolver is loose in its holster. Moving from memory, I move from one clump of brush to another on light feet and with very careful steps. There could be watchers in this brush and the last thing I need to come nose to nose with a veteran legionnaire in the darkness. I move quickly through the brush and make little noise, pointing up the ridge toward the station's radio tower. The thick grasses thin out as I get closer to the rocks and I quickly scale the short bluff that runs just outside the wall. A quick climb and a fast scramble brings me up onto the steep ridge and quickly I'm moving towards the tower. It's a steep climb at a run and soon my legs and lungs are on fire, but I keep moving.
Finally I get to the tower and stop for moment to catch my breath. I find a shallow place where the shadows are thick enough to hide me, then squat down for a breather. The moon is sinking down little by little into the horizon. Behind me the distant sparkle of the river is just barely discernable, the last light of the station can just barely be seen, and in front of me is the vast plain to which I go. Somewhere out there was the town and camp of Searchlight, and beyond that was my home of Wolfhorn Ranch and then even further west was Nipton. There were trails through the desert that I could follow in cover, but I would need to pass some of them up in favor of speed. Searchlight was almost half a day's walk, and Wolfhorn that far again. Nipton was another day's travel, but I should be able to find what I need before going that far.
I rest only a moment before heading out again, moving in the thickest of the shadows and on the firmest ground. Thorns scrape against my sleeves as I go and I feel the jagged rocks under my boots as I scramble carefully over them. A slip here could mean a broken leg or worse, so I take each step with care. I point myself southwest toward the old Coyote Mines, the nearest shelter of any sort for miles. The mine would offer shelter and cover from prying eyes while I rest through the remainder of the night. I listen carefully for the sound of predators or for other men, hearing nothing but the orchestra of insects and the constant stillness of the desert.
The cool air is pleasant on my skin, coolly kissing the sweat on my face and neck. Several times I stop to listen into the darkness, alert for any sign of pursuit, but there is nothing by the calm and stillness of the desert night. I reach the mine after more than an hour's trek and step warily in through the old half-rotten door. This was a place that attracted all comers, be they Rangers, NCR troopers, Legion scouts, or raiders that would kill a man for his bootlaces. I quick sweep of the mine reveals nothing, thankfully. I roll out my bedroll and set up an rudimentary alarm on the door (an old tin can filled with bottle caps tied to a string around the door handle) before laying out my gear and curling up on my blankets, instantly asleep.
I don't know how long I slept, but when I opened my eyes I could see that it was early morning and that the sun was full up. I have a quick meal of jerky and water, then gather my gear and set out again. The sun is rising high in the sky, but the heat of the day is still low. Again I keep to the folds of the land an the thickest of cover. Not far from the Coyote should be the Searchlight Gold Mines, where most of the men in the town work. There isn't much gold down there anymore, but there is lead and copper, and both of those are prized these days for bullets and electronics. The mining crews should be at work by now, so there should be people nearby. Always I carry my rifle at the ready. Out here there are more than just raiders and legionnaires to deal with. Golden Geckos, Cazadores, even some Nightstalkers are known to prowl here, and the Golden Geckos love to hunt during the day. And there were always the herds of wild Bighorners that could be deadly aggressive and packs of mole rats that will attack on sight.
Hours pass by slowly and the heat of the day begins to climb. In this desert the temperature can quickly rise to well over a hundred degrees, and in the summer much more than that. It was the middle of summer now, and the heat was quickly becoming unbearable. I take a drink from my canteen as I go, but I'm careful with my water. There was no natural water nearby and the few wells were guarded. Between the two canteens I carried there was enough for three or four days, and with careful rationing it could last a week. I'd gone without water before and could do it again, but hopefully it wouldn't come to that.
All around me the desert stretched out as far as the eye could see. To the east was the broken spine of saw-toothed ridges that separated the plain from the river valley, while to the west there loomed the Black Mountains. I don't know if that was their original name, but that was I'd grown up calling them. Somewhere in those mountains there was supposed to be an old military base that had been taken over by Super Mutants, guarded by Centaurs and radioactive craters, as well as a hidden valley from which no one had ever come back. It's amazing what kind of stories people will believe.
After hours of hiking I finally come within sight of the gold mines. I make for the mine, hoping to find someone from whom to get some kind of news, but the mines are silent. There should be machinery clanging away, men working and milling around, and Brahman caravans that would carry the ore and slag away. But there was no one here now, no Brahman caravans, not even the methodical thud of a hammer or a pickaxe. I approached the mine carefully, rifle ready at my hip, hoping to find something to tell me what was wrong. Nothing. Not a damn thing. No machines, no tools, no miners, not even slag rock from hastily ended work. This mine hadn't been worked in days and the mess of tracks outside the entrance were old and eroded. Something, or someone, had made these men abandon their work and take out quickly. All the tracks led west toward Searchlight, all of them of men in work boots and common shoes.
What could make these men pack and run like that? These were tough men who were used to anything that the desert could offer, hard workers that would work though any storm and fort up at any sign of trouble. What could force them out? Only one thought came to mind, and I hated to even think it. A further mystery was the strange cloud that seemed to be hanging over the west. It wasn't a sandstorm or a thunderstorm. It was dark and ominous with just a slight tinge of color to it, and when the wind came from the west it had a strangely foul odor. I'd never seen anything like it. The cloud didn't move or disperse with the wind, nor did it rumble with thunder or give any indication whatsoever as to its disposition. Whatever it was, it seemed to be hanging over or very near to the town. That didn't sit well with me and only made me more curious to see what it could be and what could be happening to make it so.
Another curious thing to me were the tracks of the miners that had fled so quickly. Something had spooked them from this place. What? Whatever it was had to have been in the south, so on a whim I angled to the south and began to swing a wide circle in search of sign. It took only a few minutes to find what I was looking for. A large party of men on foot had come out of the east, following the path of the old highway but with men on each flank some forty yards from the main body. There were no animals and the men were all of medium to light build, none of them carrying very heavy loads, and they were all wearing sandals with iron studs in the soles for traction. Only the Legion wore sandals like that. The tracks were relatively fresh, no more than two or three days old, and after a wide search I surmised that the group would have to have comprised of at least thirty to forty men.
Forty men, traveling light and fast. A raiding party. A large one, larger than most and almost the largest I've ever seen, but a raiding party nonetheless. Following the trail wasn't hard at all, and following it for a short ways told me all I needed to know. They were heading for the town, without a doubt, but several small groups split off from the main party just a couple of miles from town. One group headed to the northwest, one to the east, and another slightly to the south where they could camp close to Searchlight. I passed two more mines on the way, both of them abandoned, and I noticed that the strange green cloud was becoming larger and larger as I came closer. It was only a mile or less to town now. I could see the spires of the larger buildings peeking over the horizon and the occasional glint of sunlight on a window.
All of a sudden things just felt different. The air became heavy and foul, the hovering cloud seemed to have descended to the earth and become a thin green haze that covered the land, and suddenly I became aware of a strange clicking sound. I reached into my pocket and slipped out my little pocket Geiger counter, looking down at the dial and seeing the needle jumping almost to the red zone. What the hell? There should be no radiation here. The whole Mojave had small amounts of fallout from the Great War two centuries ago, but nothing anywhere near these amounts. What could have done this? I popped a couple of Rad-X and put a Radaway tablet in my upper vest pocket where could get to it, pressing on through the cloud. It was getting harder to breath now and the road was hard to follow, but I trudged on and kept pushing myself to go onward. There had to be someone around somewhere. Someone had to have lived.
The first of the buildings came into view through the haze. Beyond it I could see the church, the fire station, the sandbag fortifications and automated turrets that guarded the entrance. There was no one around, no one in the streets, no one to call out to me as I approached. The Geiger flew into the red zone when I tried to get closer to town, marking radiation levels as deadly. A man would need a heavy duty radiation suit to even think about going in there and I had neither the gear or the expertise to attempt it. Nothing could live in there anyway, nothing but a Feral Ghoul or some mutated bug. There was no chance of anyone being alive here, not a chance in hell.
I took out my binoculars and took a look at what was left of the town. I looked into the street and felt my stomach turn at what I saw. Bodies lay strewn in the streets, one hanging out of a window as if she had died trying to escape from the window. Several of the bodies were in NCR battle dress uniforms, their weapons at their feet as if they had fallen from their hands at the moment of death. The bodies were scattered all along the street, at the sides of the lanes where they would have been walking in day-to-day errands, with the soldiers at the center of the street where they would have been on patrol. This had happened in an instant, as if there had been some kind of bomb or device of some kind. What kind of a weapon could do this? Those Legion bastards had gone too far here. Slaving was one thing, raiding was normal for war at any time, but this . . . this was slaughter for slaughter's sake. They would pay for this. By God, they would pay dearly.
I took out the radio and flicked it on, dialing into the emergency frequency to call in what I'd found. Military intelligence needed to know about this. This kind of a weapon was far too deadly to be left in the hands of the Legion, for that matter in anyone's hands at all, and we needed to stop them from using it again. I tuned into the correct frequency, but there was nothing but static. I tried another frequency, but it was all the same. Nothing came through the radio on my end and I couldn't get anything to come through. This had to be the interference that the comms officer back at Echo had been talking about. This radioactive cloud must be interfering with the radio waves somehow, scrambling communications. Maybe that was the main reason for the attack. Searchlight had been a main base of supply and communication for the stations on the front line. They were trying to cripple our response time, cut off our supplies, choke off our reinforcements.
All of this added up to one thing. They hadn't razed the town, they hadn't taken slaves or trophies. This was a murder raid, plain and simple, and they were trying to cut off Nelson and the rest of the front line. That army at Cottonwood Cove was an invasion force, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed to me that that army was brought here to take out the stations along the river, not to take the inner towns. This party I was trailing was just a small part of the larger force.
Backing off from the edge of the town, I consider my situation. The sun was sinking lower in the sky and a look at the horizon told me that I had less than three or four hours of daylight remaining. Camp Searchlight had to be just to the west, if it was still there at all, and there would be troops there. At least I hope there would be troops there. The camp was at the edge of town and there should have been a contingent of soldiers there that would normally be on patrol around town. At least a squad or two, probably more if they had survived the initial attack, and by now they would be forted up in the camp. There had always been a small circle of defense around the supply tent, but now there should be more fortifications set up after the attack on the town and what had more than likely followed when the Legion came to mop up the rest of the soldiers or to take whoever was left as slaves.
I ate some more of the jerky and another swallow from my canteen. The water was warm and a little brackish and the jerky had the gamey taste the gecko usually does. I had always loved the taste of wild meat. Tame Brahman and Bighorners were alright, but there was something about the taste of a truly wild animal that made it that much better. They tasted of the hills and the mountains and the valleys where they had lived, of the wild places where few men had been since the olden days. I wished I had some wild meat on the spit now, cooking over a fire with some sage and banana yucca to go with it. That would really be great . . .
Something moved down toward the town. Instantly I lifted my rifle and eared back the hammer. I couldn't see anything through the green mist, but I could hear the sound. I could hear shambling feet, a low moan that almost sounded like a growl, the rustle of armor as a person moved. Was there someone left alive? Had someone survived the radiation? I felt hope rise in my chest and I ran for the sound, hoping that I would find someone walking out of the mist. A form came out of the cloud, a hunched, shambling figure with his arms hanging at his sides. Something was wrong with him, something that I couldn't quite see. I saw that he didn't have any hair, or didn't seem to, and there was something about the way that he was swaying from side to side.
"You there!", I shouted at the figure, "Are you hurt? Answer me!"
He didn't answer, but his head came up sharply and he let out a visceral growl that sent a chill down my spine. He started at me in a shambling run and raised his arms, grasping at the air in my direction as he came at me. I raised my rifle to my shoulder on pure instinct and wrapped my finger around the trigger. He came closer and closer to me and finally came out of the mist where I could see him clearly. His face was horribly burned, his skin drawn and red, his teeth were gnarled, jagged, and yellow, and his eyes were a kind of dull white that gave me the chills. His face was stretched into a jagged maw and he was coming at me faster now. I yelled at him again, but he didn't seem to notice or care. He was a ghoul now, a feral, and his one instinct now was to tear me limb from limb. He wasn't human anymore.
I looked down the barrel and took a sight on his forehead and took up slack on the trigger, holding just below the spot I wanted to the bullet to hit. My repeater was set for a hundred yards, so the bullet would hit just a bit high at this range. He was almost on me when I squeezed off my shot, no more than ten feet or so away. The bullet went in right between his eyes, splattering rotten irradiated flesh and ending his misery forever. He falls to the ground, dead, and I lever a fresh shell into the chamber as I watch him fall. I take another cartridge from my belt and thumb it into the repeater, wanting it to be fully loaded for future use. Looking down at the body of the poor man, I can't help but pity him. Who was he? Did he have a family? Did he die quickly the first time, or did he die slowly and horribly like so many others?
Over a hundred people had lived here in this town. Men, women, children, soldiers, barbers, housewives, all of them just going about their daily lives. A hundred and twenty, maybe a hundred and thirty people, all gone now. All dead or turned into mindless beasts like this poor devil. All dead and gone, a whole town turned into a cemetery, and all in the name of some crazy old man's mad dream. Where will this end?
More movement from the town draws my attention from the corpse. More shambling feet, more moans, and something else. More figures come out of the mist, arms outstretched and yellow eyes blazing with blood lust. Some of them are wearing NCR armor, some the tattered remains of their former clothes, others naked but for a tattered piece of cloth about their midsection. I count four, no eight . . . ten . . . twelve . . . twenty of them. And now something else comes out of the shadows, something that makes my heart skip a beat. Green scales, a towering stinger, claws snapping at the air and cracking like pistol shots. Three of them, twenty ghouls, and me with just twelve shots from a Cowboy Repeater.
"Oh, God," I say to myself as I raise my rifle, "this could be it."