In the Eyes of a Ranger

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Chapter 20

The desert was hot and, heat waves dancing across the distance as we passed over the hills and the ridges that separated the great valleys of the Mojave. The sun was hot and there was little breeze to cool the heat away, but it was a land that I loved and one that I would never tire of. Boone had I had left Nelson before sunrise the a day ago and started on our way east. We had provisions in our packs and we had packed along enough ammunition for a good long fight if one came. And we were fairly sure that one would come. The Legion was mostly gone from the west side of the river, but there were still raiders and bandits aplenty that would kill a man for his boot laces as well as a myriad of wild animals that would kill man or beast as fast as look at him. Geckos, Cazadors, Radscorpions, and the occasional Mantis all frequented the stretch of territory between Nelson and the Dam and we had to be wary of them all.

I traveled with my rifle always in hand, as did Boone, for the wise traveler is ever wary and always alert. In the Mojave death could come from any bush, any gully, any crevice or cranny of the land that could hide a man or a predator. Many an unsuspecting traveler had been cut down in his tracks by a sniper on some ridge that he didn't even know was there or by a gecko that came charging out of nowhere and tore him apart.

We followed no road and stuck to the trails that we both knew would keep us from inquiring eyes. We moved until midday and we took our nooning in the shade of an overhang near Helios One. Rumor had it that there was an abandoned vault somewhere nearby, and others said that Jubal had been into it and walked out when no other had ever been known to do so, but we wasted no time in sightseeing. Jubal's letter had sounded urgent and we both knew that there was something in the wind. Caesar had lost too much since the NCR had taken back Nelson and his men had been driven from the west bank of the Colorado. He needed a victory and he needed it bad, and his armies were in place to strike at the Dam. If he took the Dam then he would have the advantage and could march on New Vegas, and if he took New Vegas then he would control the entire Mojave.

After coffee and a quick meal of jerked meat and some Blamco Mac N' Cheese cooked in the pot over the fire, we set out into the desert again. We made good time and stayed to the folds of the ground and the deep gullies that cut through the desert in places, some of them deep and wide enough to hide an army in if one wished to do so. That was one of the biggest dangers of the desert, for at a glance it could seem flat and barren as a dust-covered caravan table and then a man would come up to a wide place where an entire legion could have been hiding in wait. Many was the time that I'd seen raiders and legionnaires spring out of places that I hadn't seen and ambush caravans or columns of troops before they knew what hit them. I made it a point to look for such places and mark them in my memory, for such knowledge could often mean the difference between life and death.

We camped in the lee of the cliffs just outside of Boulder City and made a small fire to cook our supper, then doused it and went on another mile before making our night camp. We were extra cautious here for we both knew that with the coming of further hostilities there would come more and more supply caravans and troop movements, which meant that the Vipers and the Gunslinger gangs would be out in force and could be hiding anywhere along the roads and trails, not to mention the small raiding parties of legionnaires that would be crossing the river to wreak havoc wherever they could. The guard along river was extra tight here, but there were always ways for a small group of men to slip through the net and make their way into NCR territory. We chose our camp with care, hidden in a sort of hollow that was backed by low bluffs on two sides with a third walled in by the remains of a landslide that had brought down the hill in some bygone age. An old car hulk sheltered us from sight on the final side.

To the north of us I could see the ruins of Boulder City, or what was left of it. For years I had heard stories of the battle that took place there after the Battle of Hoover Dam, how the NCR had drawn in the Legion as they withdrew from the Dam and led the legions into the city in a feigned retreat and then blown the place to Kingdom Come with the explosions that had been planted there while the Rangers held off the Legion at the dam and along the road that led from it. By all accounts the surprise had been complete and the Legion had been decimated. Hundreds of men had died there, both Legion and NCR, but the attack had broken the back of the Legion attack and sent them back across the river.

Such an attack wouldn't work now, for the Legion would have learned from their mistakes and would be ready for just such a ruse. They had also been fighting us and the NCR for five long years and had learned much about their enemy. They would come across that dam in force and would bring the full force of their military might down upon it. That dam was the one source of hydroelectric power in the region, perhaps in the entire country, and it was the key to the Mojave in more ways than one. New Vegas was the jewel of the Mojave and of Nevada as a whole, but without the dam it couldn't function. The Legion had fought many wars and I had heard that they were fighting other tribes on other fronts, but the brunt of their armies would be focused here. I welcomed that.

Ever since the Battle of Nelson, my respect for the Legion has fighting men had grown by a big margin. I had fought them for as long as I could remember and I gladly killed a lot of them in combat, but never had I seen them fight like I had at Nelson. They had come up that hill, straight into our waiting guns, and they had come back again and again and had charged into the wall of lead that we threw down at them with almost no visible fear. I'd seen dozens of them fall at a time and their comrades had simply charged or moved right over their dead friends and just kept coming at us. They were devils in red and I hated them with a burning passion, but even I had to admit that they were brave men and had more guts than most could ever dream of having. I could just imagine them coming across the Dam in that same way and part of me relished the thought of them coming across that narrow corridor and straight into the teeth of our guns and the little artillery that we would have. I wished that we would have more of those big guns, but they were scarce and most of what there were in the world were leftovers from the Great War that charred the world and most of them wouldn't work. The Boomers were said to have them in plenty, but they were a secretive bunch and would use those cannons to blast apart anyone that came near their fortress at Nellis Air Force Base.

Boone and I each took turns at the watch, standing guard for two hours before waking the other for his turn. Boone took the first watch and I took the second and dawn watches, so while he found a spot in the rocks I laid out my gear and slipped into my bedroll. I was tired from the long walk and was instantly asleep, so much so that when he touched my shoulder to wake me it seemed as if I hadn't slept at all. I pulled on my boots and slung my gunbelt on, then picked up my rifle and went to the spot that I had chosen when we made camp. Boone's position had been a good one, but we were careful to set no pattern that an enemy could exploit or to pin ourselves to certain places where a man could hide and wait in the darkness. A dozen yards from camp there was another Old World car hulk that had rotted or been blown away at the bottom, leaving an area beneath it just big enough for a man to crouch or lay prone.

I lay there in the half-light of the shaded moon, looking out over a black landscape upon which the ghostly forms of the cholla and the Joshua trees stood like lonely specters of the night. A man could look out on those miles of endless, open desert under the glow of the starlight and easily see how ancient man could come up with stories of ghosts and ghouls, monsters and evil spirits in the night waiting just beyond the black veil outside the light of their fires. I'd heard stories of the tribes that had lived here back in the 19th century of haunted places in these mountains, places of spirits where no man could or would go. Somewhere up north there was supposed to be a cave where one of those tribes had fought a race of red-haired giants in a war that lasted for generations before the giants were finally exterminated. Other stories were told of a giant, majestic bird that, according to legend, lived somewhere in the mountains along the Colorado and would come out from time to time to prey upon cattle, horses and small children. Some called it the Firebird or the Mountain Devil, but those ancients had called it the Phoenix.

I lay there under the cover of that old car and let my thoughts range far afield. My senses were attuned to the noises and the subtle movements of the night and its creatures and my eyes scanned the brush even as my mind wandered so I had little to fear. I thought about Angeline and what she must be doing back there in Novac or wherever it was that she had gone since we last met. How was she faring? Had she stayed put, or was she following her old pattern and gone off to wander or to look for me? Was she out there somewhere even now looking up at the same moon and loving the same stars as I was? Or was she asleep in some warm bed in a cozy house or at the hotel in town, free from danger and worry?

The more I thought of her, the more I wanted to be near her or with her. That was a bad thing for a man in the wilds. I had to be sharp, alert, my thoughts venturing no farther than the trail on which I walked or the next rise in my path. A man's mind had to be clear and focused on the task or else he could be distracted at the wrong time. To do that was to invite death. Even so, though, I found myself thinking of her and what might come from our reunion. I thought about that high mountain valley again, of those tall green pines swaying in the breeze and the cold, clear streams that flowed down from higher up in the peaks. I thought of the cabin that I would build, the crops I would plant, the herd I would keep when this awful hell war was all over and I could walk away satisfied.

But would I walk away? It was a question that I had often wondered but never really put much thought into for a long time. Every fighting man walks with the expectation of death, the sure and certain knowledge that somehow, some way, every man would meet his end. All we who fought for blood accepted that death was everywhere and that it could come to us all. Too many men that I'd known would go into battle or into the desert with the wrong thoughts in their head. "Others will die," they thought, "but not me. I'm special. I will survive." Too many times I'd seen men like that die bloody and painfully while others dug their graves with the same thing in mind. Such thoughts had never worried me. I knew that death was out there waiting for me and the thought of it was reassuring, almost comforting. My mother had been a God-fearing woman and she had taught all of us that God had written and planned the span of our lives a long, long time ago and that all that would happen would happen regardless of our will or our plans. The time and place of my death was predestined by a greater power than me and I walked always with the acceptance of it. Fear would profit me nothing.

Another question came to mind; would I ever find satisfaction? Would I ever find the man that had killed my family and make him pay for his sins? Twice I'd had the chance to get him, and twice I had failed to take him down. Was that a sign? Was he just too good for me? I doubted it. As strong and as good as he was, he was still just a man and every man could die. He would be at he Dam when the final battle came, of that I was sure. He was a commander and a chief among the Legion forces and Caesar would want his best men in the field when the move was made. He would be there alright, but how to find one man amongst hundreds? Thousands? Would he even be at the front or would he command from the rear like others? Something in my mind told me that he wouldn't be the kind to hang back and order the charge. He reveled in the slaughter and blood of combat and loved the heat of battle. He would be at the front where the metal met the meat.

Thinking of him made me think of Jenny, of Mom and the rest of them. That awful day played back in my mind, the moment when I found them all sprawled out in front of the trailer and swore that I would make the bastards that had killed them pay, and for a moment I had to fight back the tears. Just thinking about them almost always made me misty these days. I was glad that Boone was in his bedroll and sound asleep, or as asleep as Boone ever was, and that he couldn't see me right now.

Something moved out in the brush. There was a sound from the ocotillo thicket off to my right, just the slight rustle of movement that any small animal would make, but something about it seemed off to me. I'd lived in the desert long enough to know all the sounds that came from it and every rustle that was made by each and every creature that lived in it. That sound had been just a fleeting sound, a twig or a branch creaking under the weight of a passing animal or man, but it didn't sound anything like the sounds that would have come from a Mole Rat or a Mantis. Immediately I went flat on the ground and slid into the deeper darkness beside the car hulk where my outline would be hidden. I held my rifle ready with my thumb on the hammer and forefinger on the trigger.

For several minutes there was nothing, just the calm stillness of any desert night. Somewhere far in the distance a coyote called his eternal song into the darkness. A second later he was answered by another lonely creature, miles away from the first, then another took up the song even farther afield. Their racket was almost enough to drown out the sound. It was soft and almost inaudible, but it was there. It was the sound of a branch scratching against clothing. I squinted into the dark, letting my eyes adjust to the starlight and the soft moonlight that filtered down through the clouds. There wasn't much, but it might be just enough . . .

There, a branch swaying ever so slightly. Any other time it would look like the wind had stirred it, except that there was no wind tonight. It was much too high for a Mantis and there were no other animals in this area that would be tall enough to move that branch. Someone was out there, someone who was a skilled woodsman. That twig had creaked but not broken, and they had moved just when those coyotes had started to howl. I eared back the hammer of my rifle, holding down the trigger so that it would not click, and with intent eyes I watched the brush. Nothing moved, there was no sound, no indication that there was anyone there at all. Yet there was someone there waiting for another chance to move.

I don't know how long I sat and waited, watching the brush and the desert fro any sign of the unseen watcher. Maybe ten minutes, maybe closer to twenty. My ears stretched out to find any sound, even the slightest rustle or movement, but there was nothing. Another half hour and it would time to wake Boone for his shift. Would whoever it was still be out there by then? In my mind I knew that he would. Whoever it was, they were either stalking us or scouting us for booty. Two men camping alone in the high desert must have seemed like an easy catch. Of course, a lot of that depended on the just what kind of men those two were. Men like me and Boone were a lot of things, but an easy kill was definitely not one of them.

There, in the greasewood just a few yards away. Something moved. There was no sound, but I had seen something pass in front of the lighter sand between two greasewood patches. The moonlight wasn't much but it was just enough to see by once the eyes adjusted to it. They were close now, too close for a rifle. Whatever happened here would be up close and personal and much too close for the long gun, so I carefully laid it down and slid my knife from its sheath. I held it low and with the edge up, ready for a strike under the ribs, and I waited.

Did they know that I was on watch? Surely they must know that someone was, for only a fool made camp in the desert at such a time and place without setting a guard. They were moving in the brush with infinite care, obviously skilled at their craft and probably experienced at this sort of game, and they would be within twenty yards of our camp now. I was less than thirty feet from the dying fire and from it I was as good as invisible. My blankets were bundled as if I were still in them and Boone was visible in his bedroll. Something in the way he laid made me think that he was aware of everything that was going on. He also seemed to be laying on his left side now with his right hand free, and I was sure that he had been on his right side before. The fire was mostly dead and was now down to red coals in between our bedrolls.

I laid there beside the car and had been studying the camp for a few seconds when suddenly I felt a presence near me. I strained my ears and could swear that I could hear breathing just a few feet in front of me. I stared into the thick brush that grew around the old hulk for any kind of sign that might betray my opponent's position. Then there was a movement and I caught the slight glint of moonlight on metal. A knife blade? No, too dull. A second look told me it was armor. I looked closer and saw the hood and the wrappings around his forearms, then the red tunic and the subdued blade of a machete in his hand. He was a Legion Explorer, and he was less than seven feet from me!

He saw me at the same instant that I saw him and as he started to turn I sprang to my feet and rushed him. My instant action had caught him off guard a bit and as he turned to bring up his machete I went in hard and hit him with my shoulder in the midsection. I heard a grunt of pain and he went back a step and as he did so I brought up my knife and stuck it in almost to the hilt up and under his ribcage. He stiffened up and tried to swing his blade around at me but his strength was leaving him and the swing was feeble at best. He grabbed my wrist and tried to pull the knife out, but my grip held firm and after a second or two he went limp and fell to the ground in a heap. I didn't have to check his vitals to know that he was dead.

As soon as he was down I slipped into the shadows and took up my rifle again. In second I was in the brush and hidden from sight. I glanced at the fire and saw Boone's bedroll lying empty and his rifle was not where it had been. So we were both in play now. I was bad enough by myself, but with both he and I in the game it was enough to make any enemy back off. I scanned the brush and searched for any sign of another attacker, but saw none. A slow hour passed before I dared to move, and that with no sound or sign from the desert. I had a feeling that they were out there somewhere, watching and waiting but wary now after the death of their comrade, but they had either pulled back out of reach of sight or hearing or they were just lying in the brush waiting for us to make the next move. This was a game at which I was much practiced and I knew well that the first man to move was the first to die in this sort of thing. I felt sweat trickle down my face, even though it was cool even under the brush, and when I touched my tongue to my lips I found it dry.

When I moved it was a quick darting movement from the clump of creosote in which I had been squatting to the next one along the ridge. I came off my belly in one quick, fluid motion and instantly a bullet clipped the Joshua tree that I passed behind. It was dark and the tree's bark was almost black from some fire or lightning strike and the hidden shooter had probably not even seen it. Three quick steps and I dropped to the ground and rolled over twice, my rifle ready at my cheek and the hammer eared back. The shots died away and lost themselves in the distance of the wide open desert, for I was sure that there had been a second one right on the tail of the first. Both had been Hunting Rifles, of that I was sure, but that second one had been just a little different. It sounded hotter than the first, like a handload. A smile crept across my lips when I remembered that Boone loaded his own shells.

Two hours passed by slowly before the first rays of the sun started to creep over the horizon. A shadow passed between two bushes and I raised my rifle to fire, but it was a fleeting movement and I lost sight of it before I could get a shot. Another hour passed before I dared to move again, and this time there was no shot. I came out of the brush and went toward the fire and I saw Boone stand up in the cholla just a few yards from camp. He went to the fire and stoked the coals to life again while I went to the dead body that I'd left in the greasewood. I looked through the brush from the hillside and saw another dead man standing out in the light of day where he had been all but invisible during the night. Closer inspection through my binoculars showed me that Boone's bullet had gone through his head and must have killed him instantly.

I rolled over the dead man and right away I saw a difference. I had seen his hood in the dark and assumed that he was a plain Explorer, but now that I could see his armor and his gear I knew that I had been mistaken. He was an Assassin, one of the elite by the look of his gear, and he had been a master at his craft to get that close to me in the dark. There were mighty few men that could do that to a Ranger, let alone to me. His rifle was of the best quality, as were his machete and his pistol. It was a 12.7mm, a powerful piece that was seldom seen around these parts. He had a couple of spare magazines for both the rifle and the pistol, and when I went through his pockets I found a Plasma Grenade and a note. The note was written in scrawled English with a few sentences in that Legion language that I didn't know, but there was enough to let me muddle through it and get the gist of it:

Directive:

Find and neutralize the profligate called Daniel Weathers, Mojave Ranger

He must not be allowed to reach Hoover Dam before final action

Rewards will be substantial, payable upon delivery of his head

True to Caesar

- Vulpes Inculta

Inculta again. He must be getting desperate if he was sending the Assassins after me. It didn't surprise me when he sent them after us back in the valley while we were raiding his supply lines, but this was different. Back there I was a threat to his forces, I was a thorn in his side that he wanted to have removed so that he could hold Nelson, but now it was personal. He didn't want to get me out of the way of his army. He didn't want to hold his position or maintain his supply lines. He just wanted me out of the way so that I couldn't threaten him at the battle that was coming. Well, the feeling was mutual. For all these months I had hunted him across every corner of the Mojave and I would hunt him as far as he ran. I didn't care if he ran east to Arizona, to New Mexico, hell, to the Capitol Wasteland if he wanted, but no matter where he ran or what hole he slunk into I would find him and I would kill him.

We laid out the bodies and stripped them of their gear, then after coffee and some jerked gecko meat we set out across the desert again and left the two dead men for the coyotes. Both of them had good rifles and we each carried the extra slung over our shoulder with our own ready to hand, for we knew that the others wouldn't be far away. Assassins always traveled in squads of at least four men. Usually there were two riflemen, a heavy trooper, and a tracker. Well that man that I'd killed was definitely the tracker and the other had looked like a rifleman. That meant there were two other men out here somewhere looking for us, both of them trained killers that had but one thought in their minds.

We followed no trail now and kept to the shallow places where we would be out of sight. There were game trails crisscrossing the desert and there was the old road that led away to the east toward Boulder City and then on to the Dam, but we both knew that that was the first place an enemy would look for us. We avoided both and made our own way until we crested out on the ridge above the ruins of Boulder City. We laid low and looked out over the crest with our binoculars and scanned the desert below, but saw nothing to arouse suspicion. We crawled over the ridge so as not to skyline ourselves and then made our way into the ruins of the town. There were a few people left in Boulder that held on to gather the scrap metal and the slag rock that was left over from the destruction of the town at the Battle of Hoover Dam, although they were mostly the dregs of the NCR who had come here to hide.

As we came nearer to the old city, I could hear both of our stomachs grumbling. We knew that there would be a diner of sorts in the saloon that had been put up in the one of the few buildings that was left standing and that it was the last place where we could hope to find a good meal before we got to the Dam. We'd had nothing but the simple camp fare and the supplies that we had brought with us from Forlorn Hope. We could smell the meat cooking and I could see the few Brahmin that were kept for food on the far end of the ruins and I knew that the prospectors would be cooking their midday meal about now, and there would be fresh coffee. I said as much to Boone and he agreed. The food that we would get there would still be just simple fare, but it was better than army slop on any day.

We passed a couple of Radscorpions in the field outside the town and I could see a few wild dogs skulking around the edges of the ruins. They were a constant menace around the Dam, I had heard, always looking for scraps and occasionally coming after stragglers who ventured too far from their posts. There were a few prospectors hanging around the old building, little more than a ruin itself that I was honestly surprised was still standing, all of them in dusty overalls or dirty trail clothes and all but one of them wearing long and shaggy beards. I could have been wrong, but I'm pretty sure I saw a tattoo on one man's arm as we passed that looked like it said NCRCF.

We stepped through the batwing doors and into a room filled with cigar and cigarette smoke that smelled of broiling meat, boiling coffee, bad whiskey and stale sweat. The crowd that was filling up the barroom were rough looking men for the most part, men that worked hard and played harder when they had the chance and men that who had carved out a place for themselves in a land where only the best of men could survive. They were my kind of people and this was my kind of place.

The crowd at the bar was five men deep and most of the tables were full, but we found a place in the far corner and sat down. A pretty waitress in a blue sundress that had seen better days came over with a pot and two cups, and a few minutes later came back with two plates of steak and beans and a dish full of Blamco Mac N' Cheese. We dug in and ate heartily, knowing full well that this was the best meal that we were likely to have for a while and enjoying it for what it was. The coffee was good, if a little weak, and when I flagged down the busy waitress again she brought us two whiskeys. I sipped mine and found it good enough. It was corn liquor, probably brewed by the bartender, and it was the kind of drink that put hair on a man's chest.

As always, my ears were ever open. Such places as this were a common meeting place in the Mojave, the kind of places where gossip and news was passed down the trails, where deals were made and business conducted, and where information of all kinds could be gathered and passed on. A man could learn a lot by just sitting and listening in the saloons and taverns that dotted the Mojave, often with news from far afield passing down the line. I could remember a few times when I'd sat in the sutler's back at Nelson or restaurant in Novac and listened to men talking about events as far away as Utah, Washington, or even the Capitol Wasteland. Once I'd heard a man talking about the snowy plains of a place called Montana, although I had no idea where that was or what sort of men or tribes would live there.

The food was good enough and the coffee was strong, as was the whiskey, and it felt good to be sitting in a crowded barroom with good people around me again. Mostly I was a man born for the wild places, the mountains, the deserts, the lonely places where few men could or would go aside from those adventurous few like me that found peace in the emptiness, but every now and then it was good to go down among people again and to enjoy the sights and the sounds and the smells that came with them. Most of the time I'd spent around folks in recent years had been while on duty and around soldiers and Rangers and the like, but every time I was around civilians I was a little more at ease. Now, sitting here and listening to the barroom talk with food in front of me and a good stiff drink in my hand, I felt more content than I had in a long time.

"Yep", one of the men near us said to his friend, "I heard it in New Vegas from one of them sodgers at the embassy after a few beers. That Courier just walked right into the Lucky 38 and killed him dead."

"I thought he worked for the man! Why would he kill him?"

"Why ya think? With the old man dead, the Courier has the run of the town. All them Securitrons, the Omertas, the Chairmen, and the White Gloves are all under his command now. I've heard that he's been makin' deals all over the place, too. Why, a feller even told me that he went into that air base up north and came out a hero. Up there at Nellis."

"The hell you say!"

"Yes, sir, he went in there under a hail of arty fire and come out a week or so later with a buncha medals and it was all quiet when he came back down into the valley just as pretty as a picture. Heard it from a gambler that saw the whole thing from up on the ridge."

"Damn! So this feller walks into Nellis and sweet-talks the Boomers, then goes into New Vegas and kills old Mr. House dead? Sounds like one scary feller."

"Well, ya don't wanna piss him off. I sure as hell wouldn't."

For the first time I noticed that Boone was listening as well, and both of us had the same look of shock as we heard the two men's conversation unfold. Mr. House dead? The Boomers allied with our friend Jubal? It was a shock indeed. No man in living memory had even set foot in the Lucky 38 casino or laid eyes on its mysterious master Mr. House, not since before the Great War when House's shield had saved the city from the worst of the nukes and preserved the population from extinction. Ever since then, for over 200 years, Mr. House had sat up there in his ivory tower ruling over the city like some king on high. Some said that he was immortal, others that he had some Old World technology that kept him alive through all the years, some others even said that he kept clones of himself that he activated and discarded every fifty years or so. Now he was dead, and the Strip was in the hands of Jubal.

Now that was news! I knew that Jubal was hell on wheels in a fight and one of the shrewdest men that I've ever seen, but holding on to an empire like New Vegas would take more grit than even he was likely to have. If anyone could do it, though, I had a feeling that it would be him.

What was more interesting to me was that with Mr. House out of the picture, that mean that there was a new player in the game for the Mojave. Up until now it had been mostly just the Legion and the NCR vying for control with Mr. House just sitting back and reaping the profits, although some said that he had some kind of plan that would have involved him taking a hand in the game, but now that Jubal was in charge it would mean a change. Jubal made no secret of his views on the NCR and their policies. More than a few people in the Mojave felt the same way, myself included.

We finished our food and I left caps on the table for the meal and the drinks, and after a moment we were on our way to the door. No one really noticed our guns or the way we just instinctively checked the loads in them before we started on. Most people in the Mojave went armed when they could afford it and this close to the Dam and the front lines a gun was just another piece of clothing. A man was just about naked if he went around without his shirt, his pants, and his pistol. No heads turned when we shouldered our guns and passed through the room, now filling up with more prospectors and scroungers coming in for their meals.

The sun was hot after the cool inside of the building, smelly as it was, and for a moment I had to let my eyes adjust to the bright sun after the dark barroom. It felt good to be outside again, as much as I loved being around folks and sitting to a table with good food before me. I had always been an outdoors kind of man. I took of my hat and smoothed out my hair with my fingers and dipped my bandana in the water bucket that stood beside the door. It was old water and needed changing, but it was cool from the shade and felt good on my neck when I tied it back on. Boone followed suit and took a bandana form his pants pocket which he dipped and tied around his own neck.

We started off the porch and into the hot sun again, pointing ourselves east toward the old road again. The long spine of saw-toothed ridges that separated the town from the river was just ahead of us, crisscrossed with trails that would normally have been unused by men but these days would be highways for scouts, raiders, and patrols from both sides of the line. To the south and west there were other ridges that were high and rough and covered with sagebrush and creosote bush with here and there a stand of prickly pear cactus. Along the tops there were a few scattered yucca plants that would be yielding the last of their fruits before the winter months came and the rains started to fall. All year long I had looked forward to the rainy season. This had been a hot, dry year and the crops and critters would be as happy for the rain as we men would be.

A year? What a difference a year can make in a man's life. A year ago I had a wife, a farm and a harvest that had just come in that would be worked by my brother and my friends at Wolfhorn Ranch while I was off rangering. My mother and sisters would keep the house that was our family home and prepare for my return in the fall to do the spring planting after the rains came. The long growing season of the Mojave made for hard work and plenty of it. The rains came mostly in the fall and most farmers planted then so that they could have a good harvest in the spring and summer. Winter is never so harsh in the Mojave these days as it might have been before the bombs fell. Most of the year was hot and dry as a bone, while the five months or so of what we called winter was only slightly less hot and with gully-washing rains coming every week or so and sometimes two storms a week.

Now all that was gone. My wife and family were dead, my home was gone, and the friends that would have looked after my crops were dead and gone along with the Ranch. Hell, my crops would be all shriveled up and gone by now, little more than rotten stalks and black ears left for the weevils and the crows and whoever happened to come along who was hungry, and my family's bones would be scattered to the desert by scavengers and the elements. If only I could have gone back and buried them! But times being what they were, it couldn't be helped. It was no matter. My mother was the only religious one of the lot of us and I knew that Jenny had always wanted to be laid to rest in the open desert where she could see the flowers and the birds on the hills. She had always liked the flowers on the cactus and the song of the wrens in the creosote thickets.

My wandering mind almost killed me, and had it not been for the flash of light on a gun barrel to the south then it would have succeeded. That glint of light came from the ridge out of the corner of my eye and I knew it for what it was. Immediately and without thinking, I dove to the ground on pure instinct and felt the whiff of the bullet just over my shirt collar a second before I heard the boom of the rifle. Boone jumped to the ground at the same instant and rolled to one side as he hit, just as I did, and a lucky thing it was too because as soon as I rolled over two bullets cut the dirt where I had been. I found a shallow place in the ground that was partly covered by a creosote clump, but it was little enough cover and well I knew it.

If I could have picked the worst place in the world to be caught in an ambush, this would be it. We had been damn fools to come here in the first place and, hindsight being 20/20, I knew it well enough. This place was flat as a dust-covered caravan table and just as open with only the occasional bush or stone for cover and little enough of that. From that ridge to the south those shooters could see right down into this little valley and cover almost all of the town, and here I was right smack dab in the middle of the open with at least two guns looking down on me and my partner. If I were on the outside of the situation looking in, I would have cursed us both for damn fool idiots and cheered on those boys on the hill.

Luckily for us the land was deceptive. From on high and from a distance it looked flat and smooth, but once down on ground level there were dips and folds in the earth that could easily hide a man if he knew what he was about. Hell, I'd seen gullies and declivities that could easily hide a whole regiment that a moment before I would have sworn was not there at all. It was into such a dip that I had rolled and from which I was looking over my rifle sight at that tall, steep ridge that we had crossed just an hour before. Whoever was up there, they were good. I could see no movement, no disturbance in the brush, not another glint of light on steel. There was no doubt in my mind who these men were. These were no common bandits or raiders. These would have to be the Assassins that were left from the squad we had fought. They had us over a barrel now and we'd play hell getting out of this mess. Damn it, if we had just kept on walking and choked down that slop at Hoover Dam instead of stopping for beef!

No time for that now. Thinking like that was for later after the action was over. This was a time for action and quick thinking. Too many men thought about the ifs and whys and what ifs during an action when they should have been doing instead of thinking. I couldn't see where those boys were dug in up there on the hill, but I knew that they would need a good spot to be able to fire down on us like this. Searching the hill with a careful eye, I tried to pick out the places where I would be located if I were to set up something like this. I could see a few spots that looked promising and would offer good cover, but I wasted no lead on searching fire. A shot now would betray my position and invite fire again, plus only a fool shoots at a target he can't see clearly. I knew that Boone was doing the same. He knew his craft and he was a first rate fighting man, so I knew that he would be where he would be most effective.

A shot came from the hill and kicked dirt just a few feet from where I lay, but I didn't move or flinch. They were searching and hoping to get lucky. Another shot came and hit just a few feet to my left. I looked for the flashes of muzzles in the brush but could see none, nor could I see the movement of the brush where a gun blast had disturbed it. They were up there in that brush somewhere, looking down their gun sights for me. Did they have scopes? Could they see into the little dips in the land where we were hidden? I doubted it. I would have seen the glint of the sun on a scope's lens and a sniper would have gotten us by now. The sun, at least, was in our favor. It wasn't yet noon and the sun was shining more to the west than to the east, so any glints of light would be from their side.

I raised the ladder sight on my rifle and estimated the range, taking a bead on a likely spot. I knew this game too well to think that they would betray their position any time soon. The first to move was the first to die in this sort fight, and by now those boys would be getting restless. They had to have been in position for a while before we walked out, and the better part of an hour had passed since those first shots had been fired. I'd heard nothing from the town and there had been no rustle of movement from the saloon, so the men of the two were taking no hand in this. It was all the better they didn't. The men up there were top fighting men and anyone that tried to get at them would be laid out for a box by sundown. I held my sight on the hill and looked for a likely spot where a man might hide, finding one in a cleft of the slope that was partly covered in brush. There were rocks scattered about the place that would provide some cover, with more jutting from the slope just behind where a man might lay. That was a mistake on his part. A bullet ricocheting off those rocks could tear a man to pieces

After another half hour or so I saw what I wanted. There was a slight movement from the rocks just below those rocks, nothing more than a bird would make upon leaving a limb, and from the distance I could see that there was what looked like a splash of red in the rocks. It was just a slight move that might have been anything, but any wildlife would have been driven off by the shooting and the movement of men and there was only a slight breeze blowing in the valley. The ground was hot enough to cook eggs and it was even hotter where I lay. The gun in my hands grew warm and I wanted to put it down and wipe my hands, but I dared not move. That man up there was looking down here for me just as I was looking up there for him and the way he was shooting I knew that to move was to die.

I held my gun steady and waited for another movement. The range was less than two hundred yards, easily within the range of my repeater. I cocked the hammer and took up slack on the trigger, took in a breath and let it out slowly, then another and let it out even more slowly. I watched the brush with a Cazador's eye, and after what might have been five minutes I saw what I wanted. There was a dark spot between two clumps of brush just below those high rocks, and when it darkened the sandstone behind him I squeezed off my shot. The bullet cut a limb of creosote and I heard a startled cry, so I levered in another shot and fired before the first had died away in the distance. A bullet cut the dirt so close to my face that it cut a red line across my cheek kicked dust into my shirt collar. Another shot came from off to my right that almost drowned out the first and I knew the distinct boom of Boone's Hunting Rifle. I saw a man spring from the brush a dozen yards from where I had fired first and levered two fast shots at him before he dove into the brush and disappeared.

With Boone covering me, I got up and ran four fast steps with bullets nipping at my heels before I dove down into the biggest clump of brush that I could find the and rolled twice to my left, then once to my right again. A bullet hit dirt where I would have been and I fired once at the moving brush where the shooter must have been. Whether my bullet had any effect or not, I couldn't say, but a second later there came a thunderous roar from the east that I would have sworn was cannon fire. I saw dust rise in great puffs from the impact of bullets all around where that hidden shooter had been. He came running from the brush and made for the crest of the hill, but two massive bullets tore holes in his back and took him down on the spot. There was a scuffle of boots and a shout of commands from behind us, and carefully and slowly I rose up.

Six men came down from the eastern hill, all of them wearing long dusters and heavy Ranger Armor with NCR written across their chests and all of them armed with those heavy Brush Guns that I'd seen big game hunters use. Hunters, and California Rangers. These would be them, by their dress. They were different from we Mojave Rangers, but they were good men and they were veterans of hard fighting against both the Legion and the Tribals to the north and east of California's borders. If they were here, then the NCR had finally committed completely. Well, happy day.

"Well, boys," I said as they came down the hill, "I guess the first round's on me!"


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