Under our new escort, we traveled along the old highway to Hoover Dam. As I had suspected, the men that had come to our "rescue" were indeed California Rangers. They were a different outfit from us that fought in the Mojave, but they were tough men one and all. They had fought the Mojave Rangers in a long and bloody war some years back, a war that ended with a peace treaty signed at the Mojave Outpost and with the Mojave Rangers agreeing to fight with the NCR in any future actions. More than a few of us had grown to regret that pact. It seemed that when it came to fighting and dying, us folks from the Mojave always got the short end of the stick. Or, should I say, the bloody end. At Arizona Spillway, the Battle of Hoover Dam, and even at the Battle of Nelson it seemed that the Rangers were always thrown into the worst and thickest of the fighting while the NCR's troops were always held back and came in only to mop up. For the most part it was us, not the might NCR army, that had defended the Mojave against Caesar and his hordes from day one.
Most of the men that I'd seen coming out of the NCR were little more than boys drafted into service from the Hub or whatever scrub ranches and dirt farms there were in California, conscripted into service, given five minutes training with a rifle and a grenade and then thrown out into the fray to fight for the Republic, but these men were a different stripe. These were picked fighting men it I ever saw such. Their armor was heavy and thick and of top quality, their weapons were immaculate, and every piece of gear that I could see was of the best quality and condition. These men were the elite, and they knew and were proud of it. Looking from one to the other as we marched I could see decorations on their armor and dusters from the Tribal wars to the north and a couple from the war with the Great Khans just a year or so before this one with the Legion started and one man even had a combat badge from the Mojave Ranger war.
We followed them down the old, cracked, weather worn highway into the canyon of the Colorado River and as we rounded the corner of rock that made a sharp bend in the road I saw the Dam. Hoover Dam, built nearly three centuries before my time, a giant wall of gray concrete that had held back the fury of the Colorado for all these years, and the place that so many men had fought and died over that that river could have flowed for a year with all their blood. I had never seen it up close like this. I'd seen it only from a distance when out on a patrol or when I was traveling near to it, but never had I been to the actual installation. I had to admit, it was a marvel. Among all the countless ruins and jagged bones of the Old World this place still stood out just as majestic and beautiful as the day it was finished. As we left the road behind and stepped onto the cement of the dam I could swear that I could almost feel the vibration of the turbines and engines that labored down below. I could hear them rumbling deep in the belly of the concrete wall, the great beast that had claimed the greatest river left in the old United States. It was a marvel, all right. No wonder everyone in the Mojave was killing over it.
The first thing that I noticed about the setup was that the fortifications and entrenchments had all been placed on the dam itself. Now that was about as dumb a thing as a man could do. A smart commander would have place them on the ridge to the west where the cliffs offered a natural high ground and where entrenched riflemen and artillery would have the whole thing in enfilade. The dam was long and strongly built, but the causeway on top of it was narrow with only one way to come across for a large body of men. A bottleneck like that would be perfect for men on those cliffs to shoot down into when the Legion came down to claim it. Hundreds of men coming through that narrow corridor would be like lambs coming to the slaughter. But the big wigs back at the Hub had more say than the generals, it appeared, and they wanted the fight for the dam to be ON the dam, not behind it where it could be said that they were fighting for the Mojave or New Vegas. It all just proved what my daddy used to say to be right, "War is young men dying for a cause and old men collecting the gains."
The second thing that caught my eye was the stage that had been built in the center of the dam just in front of what had once been the tourist or visitor's center but now housed the central command building for the Dam's forces. It had a sound system hooked up, a pair of fine scaffolds that each held a huge amplifier and which were draped from top to bottom with NCR colors, in the center of which hung a nice big, clean NCR flag. That stuck out especially, since just about every other NCR flag I'd seen was either dusty and ripped, covered in blood or muck, or shot so full of holes that it could barely catch a breeze.
One look around and I could see that the place was ready for war. Everywhere I looked there were sandbag walls, rifle pits, and artillery emplacements where the big guns had been mounted on the Dam itself. Those guns should have been placed miles to the rear where they could be more effective and more easily defended. Those were old 88mm howitzers and they could reach out and place a high explosive shell within three feet of a spotters target from fifteen miles out. They weren't intended for close-range work like this. Even more executive BS at work on the front lines where any soldier would know better. There were sandbag walls built in a sporadic pattern all along the central causeway where riflemen could alternate covering fire when it was needed, while at the center of the dam itself there was a junk wall built out of scrap cement chunks salvaged from Boulder City. On junk wall and a few sandbags separating the bulk of the NCR's ready military forces from the might of the Legion's hordes.
The Rangers led us to the command center and Boone and I made our way to the office of the commanding officer, Colonel Cassandra Moore. She was a tough cookie, so I had heard, and not unattractive in her own way once I had seen her. She was tall and well built, stout for a woman but with all the right curves in all the right places, and she wore a gun like she knew how to use it and probably had at some point. When we came in she looked up from the stack of papers on her desk and shot us a hard glance as if to order us out, but then her look changed and she cracked an almost-smile.
"Gentlemen," she said as she slapped down the reports she had been looking at, "good to see you. We need some good fighting men around here for a change. Ranger Weathers, it's good to have you here especially. I've heard quite a lot about you from the boys at Nelson. I liked that stunt you pulled at Tehatticup the most."
"I'm proud of that one myself."
"And you, Mister Boone, it's good to have you around. I've heard quite a lot about you as well. I have a staff member here who was at Bitter Springs with you and the First Recon. He's a good man and he speaks very highly of your shooting."
"Thank you, ma'am."
"Okay, now that the mutual bullshit is out of the way, we're in deep shit out here boys. I've got so much brass up my ass out here that I could be playing the fucking national anthem, I've got four thousand Legion breathing down my neck right across that river, raiders are hassling my supply lines from here to the California border, and to top it all off I've got the president himself coming out here to give some hayseed a medal and to paint a giant fucking bulls-eye on his back all in the name of votes and political bullshit."
"Four thousand legionnaires?"
"Give or take. I've had scouts across the river off and on for a while and we've been listening to their radio chatter ever since we cracked their codes. Caesar isn't pulling any punches on this one. He's pulled two whole army groups from the wars out east and he's brought his elite Praetorian Guard into the Fort and stationed them along the front lines. Legate Lanius is in command of the land forces and Caesar has put Vulpes Inculta in command of the Praetorians."
Now that caught my attention. I knew that Vulpes was here, but knowing that he was in command of the Praetorian Guard was somehow reassuring. The Praetorians were the elite troops of the Legion's armies and they would be sent in to break our lines when the fight started, just as they were always sent into the heaviest and bloodiest fighting wherever they were stationed. This was gonna be a fight for the ages, that was for sure, and when shit hit the fan it was gonna be the Praetorians who led the charge. That meant that Vulpes Inculta was going to be right there in the lead, right where I wanted him to be.
There was a clatter of boots in the corridor and a moment later three Rangers in Combat Armor came walking into the room, and the first one through the door was Chief Hanlon. He seemed younger somehow, his battered hat resting over his furrowed brow and gray hair and his Combat Armor showing its age, marked here and there by the scars of bygone battles. Here and there I could see the streaks and dents of machete strikes and places where bullets had been deflected or absorbed. His big Ranger Sequoia hung low in its holster on his right hip while on his left a Machete Gladius hung from his cartridge belt, a trophy of battle no doubt, and slung across his back was a customized Brush Gun that I'd heard some call a Medicine Stick.
"Weathers," he said in that gravely voice of his, "glad you could make it. Did you have a nice rest in Nelson?"
"All palm trees and whiskey sours, chief."
"Good to see you too, Boone. We could use a good shot around here, since all we've got is guys like this who couldn't hit the broad side of a Brahmin's ass. Colonel, ma'am, I've got some bad news."
"Please, don't rain on my fuckin' parade chief."
Hanlon shook both our hands and stepped over to a table near the colonel's desk where there were some maps laid out with red lines marking the known Legion positions around the east bank of the river. I could tell that he'd been off scouting from the dust that sifted from the cracks in his armor and the folds of his clothes. He swept away some papers and smoothed out one of the maps and pointed to a spot on the east bank.
"The Legion's been moving men up and down the river to positions here, here, and here. I'd say a full cohort at each location with supplies and attendants. And they're building boats."
"Rafts and barges, probably," I said after looking at the map and the locations, "for an amphibious assault. They mean to attack on the flanks while the main assault hits the Dam and catch us off guard."
"Damn it! I was afraid they would try something like that. We don't have enough men to secure the whole shoreline and the Dam too. If they take the flanks, we'll be done for."
"How many men do we have in all?"
"Around fifteen hundred NCR, two hundred California Rangers, a hundred and fifty Mojave Rangers, plus a few civilian volunteers. I can call for reinforcements, but they won't be here for a week or so."
"That shouldn't be a problem. We saw the Courier on the way back and he's comin' in with a couple hundred Great Khans."
I couldn't hide the disbelief in my voice as I said it. The Great Khans had been our enemies for years, ever since the massacre at Bitter Springs and the end of the short war for the northern Mojave had pushed them into Red Rock Canyon. The place was a deathtrap for anyone trying to attack it and the Great Khans knew every inch of it by heart. There were a thousand places where a rifleman could just sit and wait for some poor bastard to come waltzing in and come right into their sights, and if I knew the Khans then they would have the whole canyon ranged and marked. They'd been raiding caravans and outlying settlements near the canyon for years and had been known to execute their captives in plain sight of rescue parties just to enrage the NCR. They hated hard, so what the hell were they doing coming here to fight on our side?
Colonel Moore seemed to see our astonishment, mine and Boone's, and after a moment she finished sorting out her papers and came over to the table to join Hanlon and the rest of us.
"I sent the Courier to Red Rock Canyon to negotiate a settlement with the Khans some time ago. He found out that the Legion had a man there trying to get them to join with Caesar under the promise that they would be given the Mojave after the battle was won, but he snuck into the Fort and found evidence to the contrary. The old man had plans to sell them all as slaves after the Dam was taken and keep the Mojave for himself. His envoy in their camp tried to make his case for them after the Courier came up with his evidence but they just blew him away and tossed his boy in a ditch.
"Over the last few months we've been building relations with several groups in the Mojave in preparation for this fight, mainly with the Courier's help. Ambassador Crocker up in New Vegas sent him up to talk to the Boomers at the old Air Force base, to the Strip to negotiate with the families, and now he's gotten us a treaty with the Khans. With the situation on the Strip changing in our favor, I'd say the odds are a little better now."
"Maybe, but I still don't like the idea of Khans watching my back."
"The enemy of my enemy is my friend, Weathers. Right now we need all the allies we can get and all the boots on the ground that we can find. You men look done in. Go grab some chow and a cot and report back in the morning."
"When is the president due to arrive?"
"Any day now, but the ceremony is set for the day after tomorrow. I suggest you pick your spots early. It's gonna be a hell of a party."
We left her to her work then and the three of us went topside, me, Boone and Chief Hanlon, and when we came out into the hot sun again we were just in time to see the Courier and the Khans come into camp. Hanlon hadn't been lying about the numbers. There were at least two hundred men in the column coming down the old highway and I guessed that there were more in the hills guarding the flanks and bringing up the rear that no one would ever see until they wanted to be seen. Jubal was out in front of the column, Trail Carbine across his shoulder and his big .44's on each hip, and beside him walked a mountain of a man that had to be Papa Khan. He looked to be in his late fifties or early sixties, but the powerful muscles of his youth hadn't left him yet. He stood a few inches over Jubal and I guessed that he weighed in at no less than three hundred and fifty pounds, all of it pure muscle, and his Khan vest bulged against his massive chest and arms. He carried no gun that I could see aside from a 10mm Pistol stuck in his belt, but he wore a Machete Gladius in a finely tooled sheath that hung from his belt on a suspension rig. The hilt was of bone and there were brass tacks set in a sun pattern on the scabbard. A fine weapon for a fine warrior and one that had undoubtedly seen much use.
Hard looks were exchanged as the Khans filed in through the pass, but no one spoke. There had been bad blood between the Khans and NCR ever since the Bitter Springs Massacre and no one in camp seemed too happy about the arrangement. No doubt friends had been lost on both sides in the wars and the fighting between the two camps, and had it not been for the greater danger of the Legion to unite us I had no doubt that a meeting like this would otherwise have ended in bloodshed. I looked from one to the other as they passed and I knew them all to be top fighting men. These were men who fought for glory and honor and family above any flag or political ideal, men whose lives demanded strength and courage just to survive the day and whose lives held little room for softness. They respected only strength and spirit and anyone who wasn't of their clan or tribe was considered an enemy. Most of them were young men out for glory but I could pick out a few older, more seasoned warriors amongst them. The older ones all looked at Boone as they went by, or more specifically at his red First Recon beret, and if looks could kill then the both of us would have been struck dead.
I waved a hand to Jubal as he walked by but let him go on to the stretch of beach along the reservoir where the Khans would be camped. Colonel Moore had arranged for them to defend the left flank of the Dam while a contingent of California and Mojave Rangers would cover the right from the bluffs. The right flank was easily defended from the cover of the rocks along the bluffs beside the river and the excellent field of fire, but if the Legion tried to come across the reservoir as I knew they would then I guessed that the Khans would have a hard time of it. I didn't know who to pity more, the Khans along the shore or the legionnaires who tried to dislodge them.
The mess tent was set up beside the main building and had a dozen or so long benches set up in lines across the common area. The midday meal had already been served and the cooks were mostly cleaning up, but they saw us coming and one of them brought out a pot of beans and a platter of biscuits while another filled a pot of coffee and brought it and three cups to a bench near the wall of the dam. From where we sat we had a good view of the river and the wide canyon far below as well as several miles of sun-bleached shoreline. How many hundreds of men had died along that shore these last five years? How many thousands had fought and died for it in the thousands of years that men had lived on this river? This was a land where blood and conflict were commonplace and where only the strongest of men and beasts survived, but a land that was better for it. Men and nations had fought and bled for this land for untold eons and would fight over it for many more after we were gone and all that we did here were gone and forgotten.
The food was alright and the coffee was strong, as soldier's coffee should be, and we watched the river fall away into the canyon and flow away to the south while we ate. There was always the dull rumble of the water flowing out from below the dam down below and the faint sound of the few machines that had been repaired coming to life deep within the bowels of the dam itself. Most of the Dam was still inoperable and its ancient machinery was largely dead but the NCR was making progress toward getting them fully operational again. When they did, it would mean a new time of prosperity for whoever prevailed here. Whether that would be the Legion or the NCR remained to be seen.
I wasn't a fool who trusted to nationalism and the perceived superiority of one group or another. I knew that there was no set outcome for any time or engagement. I'd seen battles that should have been easily won be lost by fools and twists of fate, and I had seen battles that were hopelessly lost be snatched from the jaws of defeat by men that just didn't know how to quit. This was a battle that would decide the fate of the Mojave for years to come, probably even the fate of the powers that were involved as well. Five years of warfare had drained the NCR of its manpower and resources to the point that they were fully invested in this place while the Legion had devoted more than half of their armies to the taking of the Dam in years past and to the battle that was coming now. Four thousand men had been brought here, more than even the first battle had brought in, and if they lost this fight then it would take years for them to recover in which time either the NCR or their other enemies would be moving in for the kill.
Several men came and went from the mess area in the hour or so that we sat and ate. The fresh faces that I had seen in the past were gone now, or at least from this place. At Nelson and Camp McCarran the troops were mostly the new recruits that were fresh out of California out for their first action, but here there were few of that sort that I could see. These were men that had been through the ringer and had seen their share of carnage, men that would stand their ground and fight hard when the time came. The addition of the Khans would be a help, although there would be some bad blood between them and the NCR troops, and Colonel Moore had mentioned that Jubal had recruited the Boomers and the families on the Strip as well. The families wouldn't commit men to the front, I was sure, but from what little I knew of the Boomers it seemed that they would be spoiling for a fight. They were a mysterious, secretive bunch that stayed locked away in their old base, but their artillery and hardware were famed across the Mojave and there was talk that some of their robots had been seen along the shore of Lake Mead transporting something large.
"So," Chief Hanlon said after putting away two bowls of beans and a few cups of coffee, "about this medal that the pres is supposed to give to you, Weathers . . ."
"I'm getting one, too? I thought it was just some California man getting decorated."
"You were supposed to get one, but the powers that be decided against it. We're not officially a part of the NCR military and I guess they think that giving one of us a medal for something that happened at an NCR defeat would look bad in their West Coast papers. But I've never been one for people-pleasing. I give credit where credit is due and I ain't about to let some western tenderfoot tell me who to reward and who not to. How would you like to a captain?"
"A captain? Me? Have you been hittin' the hooch this morning, chief?"
"I mean it. You're a damn good fighting man and you've been through it more than just about any of our other men lately. Wolfhorn, Nelson, that long walk you made, it's all coming back to the higher-ups and they're all pleased. Ever since Gibson died we've been one captain short and I've been looking for a good man to replace him. You served with him and you know the terrain and the Legion."
"What about that talk we had a while back? You know, about me being a liability when the Legion was about?"
"That's a concern, but sometimes a little zeal is appreciated. We're gonna need that here pretty soon. Whatta ya say, ya want the job?"
Well, that was something. Me a captain? In all my years as a Ranger the thought had never even occurred to me. I'd always been just another Ranger who took orders and did his job and left the leadership and the planning to those above me. I had plans for after this fight and I knew that they might involve me leaving the Rangers, but the thought of a captainship made that problematic. A captain commanded men in the field and sometimes commanded a post, a post that could be miles away from home. I still had plans for that long mountain valley in the Charlestons. A ranch, a strong house, Angeline . . . .
"I don't know, chief. I've got some plans for myself after this, if I make it out alive."
"I know about your woman, son. She's a fine one, so I hear, one to walk the river with. I could set you up at whatever post you want, assuming that any of us make it outta this thing in one piece. You can have your pick of a command, too. There's trouble coming after all this is done and I'm gonna need some good men."
"What kind of trouble you think there's gonna be?"
"Assuming we beat the Legion, there's still a lot of bad types out here that want what we've got. The Khans are still sore over Bitter Springs, the families on the Strip are gonna want a piece of the pie, and now with House out of the way there's that Courier to worry about."
"Jubal's a good man. He'll do alright."
"That's what I'm afraid of. There's talk that he's been playing both sides, making friends for himself instead of just for NCR, that's he got plans for the Strip and the Mojave that don't involve California. There's gossip going around that he wants to make the Mojave independent. With the Securitrons and the resources of New Vegas at his disposal, he'd have a better than average chance of making it happen. Especially if we help him out."
Now that wasn't much of a surprise. Chief Hanlon had never been a huge fan of the NCR and its bureaucracy. It was common knowledge that the only thing that had saved the NCR at the First Battle of Hoover Dam had been the Mojave Rangers and Chief Hanlon's leadership holding off the Legion at the river while what was left of the NCR's forces had rigged Boulder City to blow. He had always butted heads with the generals and officers that came out of California with a year or two of military schooling and a huge superiority complex. To them, all of us fools from the Mojave were backward, ignorant fools who needed them to show us how to do things. They all managed to forget that we had saved their asses more than a few times and that we kept the peace in the Mojave while they just kept pumping all of their resources into the Dam and Camp McCarran. If things went south after this fight was over, then it was the Mojave Rangers who would keep the land safe from those that would take it.
"I don't know, sir. I just don't know."
"Well, it's a good thing that it's out of your hands, then. I already did the paperwork and the brass agreed with me. You're gonna be in command of Bravo Company right over there," he pointed to the tower and section of sandbag wall at the center of the Dam, near the junk wall, "holding the center with the NCR boys. We've got two companies here, but that's where we'll need you the most. Caesar is likely to send his best men in there to try and take it from us," he got up and shoved back from the bench, put on his hat and picked up his rifle, "like the Praetorian Guard."
He turned and walked away and left me with what I'm sure was a damn dumbfounded look on my face. Hanlon always had been a sneaky one, but I wouldn't have thought that even he would pull something like that on me. It was true that we needed good men in the worst way and that this fight we had comin' promised to be one for the books. We in the Rangers promoted only by merit rather than by who our daddy was connected to somewhere up the chain. Only the best of men got the chance at a command and they were usually the ones who had been through it a few times themselves. That was why there were only two kinds of Rangers, captains and grunts. Now he had given me command of a company of Rangers on almost he eve of the biggest fight I'd ever been a part of? If ever I could have laid a guy out cold it would have been right then. I looked over at Boone and he had one of his rare crooked smiles on his face. I could have laid him out for that, too.
We finished our meal and went to the bunkhouse area deeper in the dam and found the bunks that had been chosen for us. The rest of the bunks were full to the brim with soldiers and civilian volunteers who had flooded in for the big fight. It always put a smile on my face to see that there were still a few men and women that were willing to fight for the land that was theirs. The Mojave wasn't much, but it was our home and it was all that we had. I threw my gear on the bunk and let Boone get settled in while I went back up top to watch the sunset from the edge of the Dam. I'd always loved a sunset on the Colorado. All the colors of the sky fell on the walls of the canyon and the shadows of the rocks and the high cliffs laying like the dark fingers of the advancing night. The sound of the river and of the desert were reassuring and I loved the feeling of the heat of the day giving way to the coolness of the night.
I took my rifle and bedroll with me while I left the rest of my gear on the bunk. Boone was more than happy to sleep in the bunks, but I had always hated sleeping indoors and wanted to have the freedom of movement that the desert offered in case there was trouble. I'd spent too many years sleeping out under the stars to be used to a steel roof and the sounds of clanking boots in the hallway. The ridge overlooking the Dam would make a good spot, or maybe the long stretch of sand along the old road, as long as I had a good view of the Dam and whatever might happen.
The sun sank down behind the western cliffs and the darkness of night came over the canyon. There was no moonlight in those close confines and when I looked up at the night sky all I could see were the few stars that peeked through the darkness. I could see the Big Dipper and the North Star, and towards one side of the canyon I could see what I believed to be Orion's arm and club. It was pitch black in that canyon, aside from the few orbs of artificial light that came from the lights along the Dam. It was no wonder the natives of this land and the Americans after them had called this place Black Canyon.
Across the river from us I could see the fires of the Legion encampments, thousands of tiny glowing dots scattered across the narrow gap of land that stretched away from the Dam toward the east. They were few and scattered the farther out and closer to the Dam they got, but closer to the Fort it was almost a solid ring of firelight. In the clear night I could just barely make out the distant echoes of songs being sung around those fires. I wished that I could hear those songs. Those men over there may be my enemies and I would gladly kill them one and all, but they were fighting men one and all and they knew the value of honor. Right now they would be singing of their ancestors, the old songs passed down through the Legion and the tribes that had been conquered over the years, songs of valor, courage, and of battles past where their heroes had fought and died in glory. Soon another such battle would be fought here. Whose songs would be sung of the victory? Whose name would be recorded in the annals of history when the dust had settled and the guns fell silent? Only God and fate could know, and neither of them were talking.
I spread my ground sheet out on the bluff and laid out my weapons in the usual manner, a routine that I had done thousands of times before at a thousand spots just like this. How many more times would I lay on this earth with a gun to my hand and my ears pricked for danger? It was a fine life that I lived and one that I had always loved, but lately I had come to realize just how lonely it could be. All the blood and death of these last few months had made me see that sometimes a man needs more than just a warm blanket and a good gun at his side to have a real life. This life was a bloody one and for many it was a short one. Often men like me touted our strength and prowess in battle, the honor and glory that we had won and shared on the fields on which we had fought, but what good was glory with no one to share it with? A man needed something more than the cold earth to lay his head on after a while. Every man gets on in years and comes to a time when he needs a hearth, a home, a family . . . .
What was Angeline doing right now? Was she looking at this very same sky? Was she in a nice warm bed while I lay on another cold patch of ground in the middle of nowhere? Was she thinking about me just as I was thinking about her? My thoughts were still on her when somewhere along the line I slept. It was a peaceful sleep, better than any I'd had in a long time.
For two days all was quiet on the front lines. Off in the distance there were occasional shots and the day after we arrived there was a small skirmish a mile downstream, but nothing major happened. The armies sat in their corners and we watched each over our gun sights, each waiting for the other to make the first move. I went to my section of the Dam and took command of my company, and good men they were. Most of them were veteran Rangers, men that I knew from previous engagements across the Mojave. The company had been stationed at the Mojave Outpost until the call came to head to the Dam, so they were at almost full strength. Thirty-eight good Rangers of the usual roster of forty, all experienced fighters and all of them itching for a fight. I had them shore up the few weak spots in the sandbag walls, posted a sharpshooter on the tower beside our position, and we kept two men on lookout at all times. I made sure all of the men had their weapons cleaned and ready and that we plenty of ammo ready to hand, as if a Ranger had to be told to keep his weapon clean.
I saw Boone from time to time, moving from one post to another and always peering off toward the east through his rifle scope. I knew that he wanted a shot at a legionnaire in the worst way, but we both knew that the time would come soon enough. He was bound to no commander, since officially he was a civilian volunteer and not bound to any one unit, so he was free to come and go as he pleased. Jubal was about as well, moving here and there between the Dam and the Khan encampment and back again, then on the third day he disappeared into the west and didn't return until the next day. I didn't know where he went but when he came back he had a bottle of whiskey in his hand and two glasses.
"Don't call me that, Jubal."
"Whatever, come on over here and let's have a drink. Oh, sorry, would the captain care for a drink, sir?"
"Screw you, man."
"Sorry, I prefer redheads. So, how does a real command agree with you?"
"Truth be told, I hate it. I've been a Ranger all my adult life, but I was never in charge like this. I took my orders and carried them out and the job got done. I'm not used to being the man giving the orders and sending good men out to die."
"Hey, you're a damn fine Ranger and a better fighting man. You were in charge back there in the valley when we raiding all those supply trains and gave those Legion bastards a bloody nose and we kicked ass. You did fine then and got us all home, I'm sure you'll do just as well here."
"Not all of us made it home, Jubal."
"Too true. Come on, let's have a drink to the guys we've lost and the ones we've yet to lose."
Back at the mess area again we found a bench that wasn't too crowded and he poured the drinks. It was just past chow time and there were a few stragglers picking over their late meals, all of them looking with envy at that bottle. Lord only knew how long it had been since they'd had a real drink for themselves. Hell, most of them didn't even look old enough to drink. Jubal poured the whiskey and from the scent of it I knew it was good. I lifted my glass and took a sip, and partner right then you could have killed me deader than a Brahmin turd and I would have died a happy man. I didn't think there was still such a thing as genuine Kentucky bourbon. I'd tasted it only once before after the chief's wedding, a bottle taken from his private stock that had been taken from the old resort at Camp Golf. Two hundred years old and still as stout and smooth as could be.
"Where the hell did you get this?"
"I have my ways. There's plenty more where it came from, too."
"It didn't happen to come from the Lucky 38, did it?"
He turned and looked at me then and I saw what I took to be amusement in his eye as he raised his glass and took a drink.
"You heard about that, huh?"
"The whole Mojave has heard of it by now. They say you killed old man, House."
"And what about the rest of it? I've heard that you killed him for the NCR, that you did it for yourself, even that Caesar himself ordered you to do it back when you went over to Fort to get your chip back. I'm asking you as a friend, Jubal, why did you really kill old Not-At-Home?"
He sipped his whiskey and refilled our glasses, then gave me that hard look that I'd seen a dozen times before when his mood changed from his usual cheerful self to the all-business fighter that everyone in the Mojave knew him to be. He was a good man and a friendly one most of the time, but when the time for decision and action came around he became a selfless machine with ice cold water running through his veins.
"Truth be told," he said in a lower tone that only I could hear, "because he was in the way. I've been working for myself lately Dan, and for the Mojave. We both know that it doesn't matter who wins here, NCR or Legion, it'll just be one kind of slavery or the other. At least Caesar would have the mercy to wipe out the population instead of leaving them to live in squalor while he takes all the power and resources for himself. New Vegas isn't just a city, Dan, it's a kingdom to itself. Mr. House kept it safe from the bombs and there was never much radiation up that way, so he kept it almost as it was from the time of the Old World. He told me everything he wanted to do once this war was over and I didn't like it one bit.
"House had a plan all along, you see. He hated the Legion as much as the next man, but was none too fond of the NCR, either. His deal was that he and his Securitrons would fight for the NCR when the time came, but he would get all the power coming from the Dam going to New Vegas while the rest of the region got zilch. He was full of speeches about moving humanity forward, bringing back the Old World, going to the stars within fifty years, all kinds of bullshit like that. I saw right through it. He was a dictator in training and all he needed was a chance."
"So you think you could do better? You and I both know that whenever one man is in charge it always leads to the same old shit, Jubal. I've heard the rumors already that you plan to take over from House, that you've made all these alliances for yourself for when you want to push the NCR out after the battle."
"Those rumors are true. I haven't just been making alliances, Dan, I've been uniting the region under one rule. The Boomers, the Great Khans, the families on the Strip, even the Brotherhood of Steel over in Hidden Valley have all taken in with me. When I was up in Utah I made some friends as well and we can open up a new trade route, plus trade with the NCR and whoever else we find to the south as soon as things cool off. We can do it, Dan."
"Do what? You think you can fight off the NCR and the Legion at the same time? You think you can keep all those factions in line long enough to do anything except cause a civil war before one or the other takes over again?"
"I've got Mr. House's Securitrons from the Strip, the reserves he kept under the Lucky 38, and a secret force under Fortification Hill that have been there since before the Great War. That platinum chip I was carrying turned them into war machines instead of just glorified cops, powerful enough to keep the others in check. We can do this, Dan. If we win out here then we can all have something that none of us have ever had or dreamed of before. We can have an independent Mojave, Dan, a country of our own. Think of it! With the Dam and the diggings in the hills combined with the trade and gambling that comes through New Vegas, we could be richer than the Legion and more powerful than the NCR in just a few years. Whatta ya say, Dan, are you with me?"
Well, that was a bombshell. I'd never thought of Jubal as a dictator, but I hadn't had him pegged as a nation builder either. It was true that Mojave was perfectly positioned between the two major powers to become a strong nation in itself, but there would always be the threat of one superpower or the other. Both had had their eyes on New Vegas and the Dam long before this war had ever started and would continue to do so no matter which way the coming battle went. Before the coming of the NCR, the Mojave had been largely a no-man's-land where all the scattered groups lived and worked on their own just as we had at Wolfhorn Ranch. The Great Khans had raided for their living and the Brotherhood of Steel had largely stayed hidden in their then-occupied base at Helios One, while the Mojave Rangers ranged far and wide to keep the worst of the raiders and armies at bay so that the independent towns and farmers could live in relative peace. The thought of being a single cohesive nation had never been thought of, at least by those of us that lived out on the barren desert in our little hamlets.
I had no doubt that what Jubal said about Mr. House was true. He could have sent out his Securitron army from the gates of New Vegas and conquered all of the Mojave at any time, even without the enhancements that Jubal's chip had given them, but he never did. He stayed in that ivory tower of his and watched the rest of the world burn while he reaped the profits from his own private city. He had been a business tycoon in the Old World, it was said, a billionaire like no other who had supposed himself to be the smartest man in the world and a major megalomaniac. He might indeed of brought mankind into a new age of advancement and prosperity, but I had a feeling that nearly all the prosperity would have gone to him and his while the lowly folks like us would have been left with the drags and told to stay low and keep quiet.
An independent Mojave? A nation of our own? The thought itself made my head spin. All my life I had lived free on the land and been beholden to no one but the Rangers, and they to the NCR only due to the treaty that our fathers had signed. The thought of living in a country of my own was a startling one. Sudden pride swelled in my chest at the thought that I could have a country of my own in which to build my home, to shed my blood for in the wars to come, to leave to the children I would raise in the years I had yet to live. What pride they would have in knowing that their father had helped to build the country that they called home! But at the same time the sensible part of my mind made itself heard. Building a new country would be a hard task that would take years to accomplish and one which would have infinite dangers. New countries were fodder for the greater ones, as the eighty-seven tribes conquered by the Legion and the many tribes and nations absorbed by the NCR had found out the hard way. At best, ours would be a buffer state for the NCR that would take the worst of the Legion's raids and invasions so that they could sit in safety and for the Legion would be a succulent prize with our rich caravans of trade goods. And worst of all, none of it might ever come to pass. To have anything at all we would first have to survive the battle.
Jubal and I talked for another hour on the subject, talking about the things that would have to done to keep the several tribes in check and the plans that would have to be made if and when our little nation came into being. Already Jubal had grand ideas about caravans laden with goods going north along the Crimson Caravan road to the ruins of New Canaan and of a string of fortifications along the Colorado in the east and the mountains to the west to protect our borders, all manned by Securitrons and Rangers. It was a grand idea, I must admit, but one that would have to wait. The sun sank down into the west again and we talked the stars into the sky as we polished off about half of the bourbon, and as the darkness fell over the Dam and the heat of the day faded into the cool of evening I looked to the east and saw those fires again along the eastern shore. We could make all the plans we wanted for the future, but right now our enemies were just across that concrete ribbon from us and ready to destroy all the plans that we were making.
Finally the night got too dark for our talk and the lights came on across the NCR side of the Dam, and Jubal took up what was left of his bottle and started for his bunk in the command center. I shook off the effects of the hooch and was reaching for my rifle when he turned around suddenly and reached into his vest. "I almost forgot," he said with a smile, "you missed mail call today. This came for you this morning."
From his inner vest pocket he produced an envelope, once white and fresh but now yellowed and battered by its rough trip in a mail courier's satchel. It was a surprise to get a letter at all, since most of the people I knew were either dead or here at the Dam, and when I looked at the postage and saw Angeline's name I couldn't help but smile. The post date was more than a month past and it was addressed simply to "Ranger Daniel Weathers - Bravo Company, Mojave Rangers". No matter it had taken a long time to find me. Jubal walked off with a nod and I split the envelope with the tip of my Bowie knife, taking out a wrinkled leaf of paper that had seen better days. The ink was a little faded and there places where little pieces of the paper had been worn off from rough treatment and heat, but the letter itself was mostly legible.
My dearest Daniel,
I hope this letter finds you well and in good health and that you receive it soon. I know how unreliable these damned couriers can be, so if you get this later than I'd hoped I suppose I'll have to live with it. I am doing well here in Novac. Mister and Missus McBride have taken me in as something of a daughter and I've been living with them these past few weeks. I have missed you terribly and I've been watching the trails everyday for you to come sauntering up to me and crack that smile of yours and just sweep this old country girl off her feet, but I know that you've got a job to do and that you're hard at it. I wish you would write, but that just isn't your way and I know it. Besides, I would much rather hear your words out of your own mouth than on some beaten-up piece of paper like you must be reading mine now.
This war is reaching out everywhere I look and I hate the Legion for what they've done. Near every day we get more refugees and wounded soldiers coming through town. Most of them know your name when I mention it and they love to tell stories of you and Jubal and the boys. Weathers the Wraith, they call you. Now if that ain't bullshit than I don't know what is. The last thing you are to me is a devil ghost in the night. I miss those nights we spent out in the desert in that little valley, watching the trails for legionnaires and looking up at the stars from our bunks or our blankets. You kept me warm those nights and these past weeks I've been so cold of a night and wishing for your arms around me. I wish you would come back to me, but I know that you're doin' what you've got to do.
You probably wouldn't recognize me with this belly I've got going. I think it's just Missus McBride's cooking, but she thinks its another condition and I've a feelin' that she might be right. All my life I've been fit as a fiddle and this gut is starting to get in the way, but I can deal with it for a few more months. I write this now by the light of the stars and the moon, the same moon and stars that I'm sure you've set your eyes on this night. I can't help but be worrisome when I think of you these days. Are you hurt? Are you scared? What fresh hellhole are you in now that might take you away from us tomorrow? I miss the hell out of you, Daniel, and I swear that when you come to home I'll never let you go off on some damn fool's errand again. Oh, hell, I couldn't keep you away if the time came and I know it. Keeping you from the fray would be like keeping a Deathclaw from a Brahmin calf.
Come home to me, Daniel. When your job is done out there, come home to me and I swear that I'll never let up and I'll never let you walk alone on this world again. I know you've lost and that you're cautious of lovin' me, but you know that I love you. This is our home, Dan, and to my mind there's just no other man I'd like to share it with. Come back to me, darling, but don't you dare do it until you've done all that you've got to do. You kill that bastard that took it all away from you before and you push those red bull devils back across the river, then come back to us and our home. Wherever you go, darling, we'll be there with you. Come back to us.
With Love and Affection,
Cartwright-Weathers? It suddenly dawned on me that I had never known her last name, nor had I ever had the need to, and the fact that she had taken my last name made me smile. Like an idiot I had worried about whether she felt the same about me as I did about her, despite her stating the contrary. Reading her words made my stomach fill up with butterflies, hearing her voice as I read them as if she were there speaking them. It was good to hear that she was in good health and that she was fitting in back there in town. After all that she'd been through, she deserved a little down time. It was funny to read about her belly. She had always been a skinny thing and she never . . . . . wait a minute! "This belly I've got going", "I can deal with it a for a few more months", "come back to us". Us? Us?! Well, I'll be damned . . . .