I had dealt with Radscorpions before, both the small ones and the giant ones and I had killed more than my share, but this time I was really in a pinch. Twenty ghouls, three giant Radscorpions, and me with just my twelve rounds in the repeater and six in my revolver. There was only one chance of escape, run. I raised my rifle to my shoulder and took a quick aim at the nearest ghoul, centering the sight on his forehead and squeezing the trigger. I saw him fall and levered another shell into the chamber, taking aim at the next nearest ghoul and firing once, then again. The first shot missed and the second took him in the chest. I levered another shell into the chamber, but turned to run in the direction of Camp Searchlight. I took more shells from my belt and thumbed them into the rifle as I ran, but I could still hear them coming behind me.
I ran for all I was worth. I hadn't run this fast since basic training and soon my lungs and legs both were burning from the exertion. I could hear them coming behind me, the shuffling feet, the demonic groans and growls, the snapping of the Radscorpions' massive claws. They were close now, too damn close for comfort. I look over my shoulder and see four ghouls almost on me. The camp had to be somewhere ahead of me. It HAD to be there, or else my goose was cooked.
A stone rolled out from under my boot and my foot rolled out from under me, throwing me off balance and falling to the ground. Shit! I saw him coming a split-second after I was on the ground, a tall ghoul in bandoleer fatigues with his helmet still hanging from the broken chin strap that had fused to his rotten neck. His jagged maw was wide open and his boney arms were outstretched toward me, his bare-boned fingers ready to tear at my flesh. Three more were on his heels, all of them dressed in similar uniforms, and I could see and hear the others coming up farther behind. The Radscorps had stopped to tangle with some of the ghouls and I could hear the snaps and roars of the combatants. The ghoul was coming at me full speed now, so close that I could smell the putrid stench of his breath and radiated skin.
My hands move all on their own and I feel the rifle jump in my hands, then on instinct I work the lever twice more. I see the armor and skin on his body jump from the impact of the bullets. He falls dead and I scramble to my feet just before the second ghoul comes at me with hands outstretched. There's no time to lever another shot in, so I bring up the rifle and strike hard with the barrel at the thing's chin. His head snaps back and I swing the stock around even harder for a butt strike to the temple. I hear the skull crack and his jaw goes loose and limp as he falls to the ground like a sack of potatoes. I lever a fresh shell into the chamber and turn back toward where the camp should be, but I don't get even a full step before the third ghoul is on me. One more step and those chomping yellow teeth would have taken my face clean off.
Her arms come up after I step back to evade her bite, trying to claw at my face. I bring the rifle up and block the blow, but she followed the force of the blow in and grasped my shirt with her boney hands. The fingertips scraped against the skin under the shirt and her bulk shoves against mine, forcing me back a step before I planted my feet in the ground and anchor myself. Her teeth come at me again and on pure reflex I bring the rifle up again. Her teeth clamp down on the receiver and I hear the metallic screech of teeth on steel, her rotten breath reaches my nostrils in an offensive cloud. More shuffling feet came from behind me and I could hear the screech of the scorpions coming my way again. I can see them coming from the corner of my eye. Fifteen of them in a scattered horde, with two Radscorps coming up behind them.
It takes all of my strength to hold her back. I'd heard somewhere that becoming a ghoul makes a person unnaturally strong, or maybe its just that their nervous system shuts down and they can't feel the pain that comes from overexertion, I can't remember. Either way, this bitch is too strong for me. Her chopping teeth are coming closer and closer to me, her front teeth almost scraping my nose. I've never seen a woman this strong, even though in life she was a petite little thing that probably couldn't open a jar of pickles. Her tattered sundress and what's left of her ponytail would have been lovely at one time and I'm sure she was a pretty enough girl when she was alive. Her burned face is grotesque and misshapen now, a vision of the Hell if there ever was one. Damn those Legion bastards for making me do this!
I see the others coming at me from the side, closer and closer now with their growls and roars ringing louder in my ears. Another second or two and they'll be on me too. I have to break free and I have to do it now. With all my strength I shove back on the rifle and force my assailant back just enough, putting my full weight into it and striking out with my boot at the ghoul's shin. My hiking boots have thick tread and covered steel toes, so when my kick lands home I feel the bone break and hear the snap. Her body falls back and takes my rifle with her, still clutched in her hands, and as she falls backward I feel my .357 jump in my hand. I had no memory of drawing it, but my hand moves all on its own and thumbs off a shot that takes off the top of her skull. Another second and I'm running and the again, but this time I'm slower, tired, near to exhaustion. The long day of walking, the sudden sprint from the first sight of the ghouls, the fight with that last one, all conspired to rob me of my strength.
My lungs were burning and my breath came in gasps, my legs were on fire, and I could feel the fatigue coming over me in waves. They were still behind me. They were tireless, unflinching, unrelenting beasts that wouldn't stop until they had me. Even the Radscorpions had given up, for it no longer heard their hissing and screeches. I'd run almost a mile by now and a ridge was coming up in front of me, a steep ridge that was covered in low brush and tall dry grass. I had to get over that ridge. The camp should be just beyond it. It should be there . . . it had to be there . . . hell, it probably wasn't even there at all. I should just turn around and go down fighting like a Ranger should. Those things were gonna get me one way or the other. I could either die here and now or keep running into a camp full of brown-clad bodies and die tired.
"Get down!", a voice called out from ahead of me.
It took a second for it to register that it was actually a real voice and not just some random hallucination brought on by the fatigue. My vision was getting blurry and my breath was getting even more labored as I ran up the steep slope. I looked up the hill and saw several figures rise out of the tall grass and raise their weapons, all of them aiming at me or past me. The leader was a tall, stocky black man with bandoleer armor and sergeant's stripes on his sleeve. He looked at em and screamed at the top of his lungs once again to see that I heard it.
"Hey, you, get the hell down!"
Well, when a man's pointing a Service Rifle over your head with a passel of friends behind him a man just naturally does like he says. I dove to one side and rolled on my shoulder as I landed, rolling into a sitting position where I could bring up my pistol to fire. A volley of gunfire came from up the slope, the unmistakable pop-pop-pop of the Army's favorite Service Rifles, and I watched with satisfaction as the horde of ghouls fell to the ground one by one. Bullets ripped through their heads and bodies. One of them kept running through the spray of bullets, seemingly unharmed as he rain through the hail of lead coming from the hill behind me. He was different from the others. He wore the same NCR armor as most of the others, but his skin was glowing a bright florescent green and his blood was like something out of a nuclear waste dump.
He charged forward like an enraged Brahman, coming straight for me and had seemingly ignoring the bullets that were going through him. I'd always hated those old 5.56mm shells that the Service Rifle fired. It never had enough knockdown power and the bullet just went straight through a target. I ear back the hammer of my revolver and steady it with both hands, take careful aim, and take up slack on the trigger. He's no more than twenty feet from me and closing now. An easy shot for me and my gun. I squeeze gently on the trigger and feel the kick of the heavy shell, a black hole forms on the glowing ghoul's head, and after a splatter of green glowing brains and bone his body falls limp and he falls dead ten feet from me.
NCR soldiers came down the slope all around me, each man moving with their weapon up and ready to fire as they looked over the bodies of the ghouls. One of them produced a 9mm from his hip holster and went to four of them, which apparently were still alive, and he casually put a bullet into each of their heads. One of them, a younger man that looked like he barely even shaved, kicked over the body of the ghoul-ette I had been wrestling with and picked up my rifle. I wanted to go and get it from him, but at the moment I just wanted to stay where I was and lay still for a moment. My every muscle was sore and I was just starting to get my breath back, the pistol was heavy in my hand, and if this was any other time I would have been happy to lie there and fall asleep.
The tall black man was standing over me when I opened my eyes after a moment. He was holding his Service Rifle by the carry handle in his left hand and in his right he held my own repeater. He was smiling down at me with a sort of crooked smile that I recognized in a fighting man and after a moment he held out the repeater to me.
"I thought you might want this back, Ranger. Of course, if you don't then I'll just take it off your hands."
"The hell you will, sarge. She's mine and nobody's taking her away from me."
"If you say so. I think that ghoul over there did a pretty good job, though."
I forced myself to stand then, even though my legs were like warm jelly, and took a moment to gather my thoughts and to let my muscles stop aching quite so much. I took my rifle from him and slung it over my shoulder, then listened to him talk as I ejected the spent casings from the revolver and thumbed in fresh ones from my belt. One of the first things my Pa had taught me when I was a youngster was to never holster an unloaded gun. A man never knew when he might need a full six shots, and a body can get into a real bad habit of forgetting the last time he reloaded if he gets careless.
"So," the big man said, "you wanna tell me what the hell you're doing out here in the middle of nowhere running a marathon with Radscorpions and ghouls?"
"I'm Ranger Daniel Weathers, Bravo Company of the Mojave Rangers stationed at Nelson. There's been a Legion incursion at Cottonwood Cove. I've been sent to alert the outlying settlements of possible raids and to report back any intelligence on enemy movements."
"First Sergeant Raymond Astor, 6th Battalion, 11th Light Infantry. Pleased to meet you, Ranger, but if you're looking for outlying settlements then I'm afraid you're shit outta luck around here."
"What happened here? Did the Legion do this?"
"Who else? They sent some Frumentarii into the camp a couple days ago. We didn't know they were there until it was too late."
"What was it? A bomb?"
"Sort of. When we took over the town there were some trucks in the old fire station that were carrying radioactive waste. I guess they put 'em in there back in the day and nobody bothered to check 'em out. We had word that there was a large Legion raiding party in the area, so they sent me and these others out on a scouting patrol. We weren't in town when the spies opened up the canisters that were in those trucks. They were killed instantly, but the cloud took over the whole town in a matter of minutes.
"It was horrible. We all had to watch from the hills as everybody in town either dropped dead or turned into these things." He indicated the bodies strewn across the desert just a few yards away, now being stripped of gear by the soldiers and hauled away for burning. "We've been keeping a lid on it so far. Regular patrols keep the ghouls in the town, we turn back anyone that comes along, and we do our best to pick off the stragglers and wanderers that try to leave the town. I've been trying to radio out for reinforcements, but this radiation is jamming all the frequencies."
"I know. Mine won't work, either. The raiders that did this, did you see them after the attack? Did you see where they were heading?"
"They came through right after the cloud dissipated enough for them to travel. They made a show of attacking us, but we were more trouble than we were worth. Eight men in a defensible position with plenty of ammo and motivation? Vulpes might as well have lined his men up for a firing squad."
"Vulpes Inculta. He's the one in command of the raiding party. I could tell by that stupid wolf's head that he wears as a helmet and by the insignia on his armor. He had some of his men pin us down with rifle fire while the rest of the troop ran by us. They headed west. We heard some shooting from that direction the other day. I wouldn't go that way if I were you."
"I have to. My family is at Wolfhorn Ranch and I have to warn them and Nipton."
"Wolfhorn is right in their way. I shudder to think of what'll happen if they get caught unawares. The people there are tough, I know, but whether they're tough as thirty legionnaires I don't know."
"I just need some water and a little food, and I'll be on my way."
"You're in no condition for travel, man. Look at you, you're about to keel over."
I hated to admit it, but he was right. My legs were already sore from the exertion and I was starting to feel tired. The little snatches of sleep I'd gotten through the week and the few hours of rest I'd gotten back at the station hadn't done much, and the long day of travel and the fight with that lady ghoul had really taken it out of me. What I needed was a good meal and some real rest, but I wanted to get to the Ranch in the worst way. Those thirty legionnaires weren't going to bypass it, they couldn't afford to, and like Astor said it was unlikely that they would see the attack coming. I remembered that Jed Matthews and his sons usually kept either one of them or one of their hands on lookout for trouble and the shooting at the patrol camp might have tipped them off, but whether they could get everyone inside in time and fend off the ensuing attack was the real question.
Hearing the name of Vulpes Inculta gave me added concern. I'd heard of him before, none of it any kind of good. He was a notorious slaver and a cruel master to all that he captured or sold. There were stories of him selling children and wives in front of their families just for the sheer joy of watching them cry and beg. He was one of the Frumentarii, Caesar's elite corps of spies and assassins, and for the last couple of years he'd been a field commander on the front lines. He'd commanded at least three large scale raids across the Colorado, one of which our troop had helped to fight off, and I could remember the cruelty he'd shown to those in his way. I remember that when we caught up with him at the river and would have taken him and his from the cliffs that he had broken the legs of his captives and booby-trapped them with grenades and mines. Two of our guys died tripping those traps, and when we pulled back he detonated the last of the bombs just for spite.
It was getting late in the day and the sun was sinking lower into the west now. The men had finished policing the bodies and piled them onto a burning pyre. I could smell burning flesh and the dark smoke rose into the copper sky, mixing with the green radioactive mist. I had to get moving and fast. I was tired and sore and it was almost nightfall, but I had to keep moving. Vulpes Inculta's involvement changed everything. Any Legion commander was bound to be cruel and heartless, but even among the Legion there were some that stood out as especially cruel. The very thought of having him anywhere near my family sent chills down my spine. If he was in command and this was just a murder raid . . .
Sergeant Astor led the way back to their patrol camp, him in the lead with three men and myself and two others hanging back to bring up the rear. There was a single large tent with a sandbag wall built in a half-circle around the perimeter and a tall bluff providing protection from the rear. The two men Astor had left to guard the camp rose up from behind the sandbags and hailed us with a challenge, which Astor answered, and I could smell food cooking over the fire. The creosote wood smelled good and I could smell coffee boiling and what smelled like Bighorner steaks and beans cooking. The smell made me remember how hungry I was and when Astor offered me a plate and a cup I took happily.
I'd never been one to skimp when it came to feeding time. My mother had always said that she would rather sew my clothes than feed me, and that a man had better have a side of beef handy if he wanted to keep me to table longer than a few minutes. I taken that plate of meat and beans and cleared it in less than a minute, then ladled myself up another. Another plate and three cups of coffee later I realized what a pig I was making of myself and forced myself to put down the fork. These boys were low on supplies and they would need all that they had left to keep up with their duties here. Astor let me fill my canteens from their cistern and take some jerked meat from their stores, and then I was ready to head off again.
"I don't like it, Ranger. You look like hell and there's too many of them out there for just you. Why don't you take some rest in the tent over there and head out in the morning?"
"Can't, sarge. My family is out there and I'm not taking any chances with the likes of Vulpes out there. Are you men staying here or pulling back to Forlorn Hope?"
"We're staying here. Somebody has to make sure that people don't walk into this mess. We'll send whoever comes along to the north and pick off as many ghouls as we can before they overrun the place. I lost a lot of friends down there. The least we can do is to put them out of their misery. I'd appreciate any help that you could offer."
"Sorry, sergeant. I've got business of my own to tend to."
"I understand. You watch your ass out there."
We shook hands and parted ways then, him returning to camp while I headed west into the setting sun. I went at a faster pace now, wanting to beat the sun and use as much of what remained of the daylight as I could. I was tired and I wanted to sleep, but now I was fueled by adrenaline and worry. I had to get to the Ranch. I had to get there in time. I picked up the trail of the legionnaires about two hundred yards from the patrol camp. The tracks were all at least two days old and I found spent shells where riflemen had fired at the camp. The shells were .357s, probably from Cowboy Repeaters, and by the shells I guessed that there were at least two Hunting Rifles present as well. Two of the shooters had dug a shallow place for themselves in the loose sand for a better position and I found impact points where the soldiers had returned fire.
The trail led off to the west in a straight line for Wolfhorn Ranch and I followed it at a steady jog. I wanted to run, but the Ranch was close to ten miles down the old highway and I would need all my strength for what I thought I would find there. Fear gripped me as I ran, forcing me to go on even when my every muscle was screaming at me to stop and rest. Sweat ran down my neck and back, staining my shirt and soaking through my vest, but I went on. Astor had said that there had been shooting from the direction of the Ranch. Maybe they had made a fight of it, as they had so many times before. Wolfhorn Ranch was built like a fort and my family and the others had held off some tough attackers from its walls. But were the people I knew tough enough to stand off thirty legionnaires? I didn't think about it I forced it from my mind and made myself run. It wasn't much farther. Just a few more miles. Just a few more miles and I would know for sure, one way or the other.
The first thing I saw was the smoke. I could smell it even before I saw it, and there could be no doubt as to where it was coming from. There simply wasn't anywhere else that could be burning. I ran doubly hard now. I was wringing wet with sweat now and it fell in great drops from my brow. I had heard of men running themselves to death. I feared that I might be doing that very thing to myself now, but I didn't care. The Ranch came into view and I could see the rows of corn that Ma and me had planted. It was a small plot, just enough to keep us fed and to have a little left over for trade. I saw our trailer beside the corn, the car-hulk defenses I'd helped build as a boy, then the walls of Wolfhorn Ranch itself with the old water pipe running through the top of them. Only the walls looked different now. In my fatigue and near delirium I didn't see at first just how they were different but as I came nearer I could see why. The walls were there, but just barely. They had been burned and torn down and in places and what hadn't been torn down had been set ablaze.
I ran up to our trailer and nearly fainted. What I saw disgusted me. There, in front of the trailer, were the remains of what had once been my family. They were all there. Ma, my little brother Jimmy, my sisters, and at the very end of the grisly line of bodies was Jenny. Her fiery red hair was matted and dark from dirt, grit, and blood, and the machete wound in the back of her skull had split clean through to her face. Her eyes were wide with fear, frozen in her last horrible moment of fright before she was taken from this world. Her yellow sundress had been torn and there were stains on the fabric. They had been at her. They had been at Ma, too, and I couldn't force myself to look at my sisters. Their little heads had been kicked in with sandal heels, while my little brother had been shot through the chest and head. There were shells around from his old Varmint Rifle, but the gun itself was gone. I walked on rickety legs to the ruined trailer and looked inside, finding exactly what I expected.
I felt sick. I've seen some real sick shit in my time, much more than any man ever should, but this made even my strong stomach heave. I ran to the nearest hulk and leaned over the hood and emptied my stomach. I collapsed, half from exhaustion and half from shock, and for a long time I sat in the mud staring at the bodies of my family. Who could do this? What kind of monster could do this?! What manner of men could ever . . . no, not men. The things that did this were not men. How could any man do this to women and children? These were monsters, dogs not worthy to live on this planet. They didn't deserve to live.
I wanted to bury my family, but I had no tool to do so with. I had no spade, no pick, nothing aside from my knife and that would be less than useless in this hard-packed soil. It was getting dark and the sun was already halfway down under the horizon. I was tired, so tired that I could hardly keep my eyes open, and for the first time in my life I was crying. I cried like I had never cried in my life. My entire life, my entire family, everything that I had ever held dear was laid out in front of me bloody and dead. I wanted to die, I wanted to kill, and for a long moment I looked down at the repeater in my hands and thought of what a good friend it could be to me now. Like any good friend, it could help me out of this. It could comfort me, it could make it all go away with just a little effort. It could be my best friend in the world . . . .
I don't know how long I slept. I don't even know when or how I fell asleep. When next I opened my eyes, the sun was just creeping up over the eastern mountains. The air was clear and cool, just like mountain air should be, and breathing it in was like drinking cold water. A cool breeze blew down from the high peaks, betraying the promise of the day's heat yet to come. Crows circled overhead, complaining to the desert, and somewhere out in the distance a lone coyote howled his last song of the vanishing night. He sounded so lonely, so sad, so distant, just like I felt at that moment.
The bodies were there before me, now all the more horrible for the stark reality that daylight shed on them. My family, my loved ones, all dead and gone. And here I was without even the ability to give them a decent burial. All I could do was to mourn them, remember them, and to avenge them. I tidied them up as best as I could. I fixed their hair and tried to clean them up with the water left in one canteen, and when I came to Jenny I had to fight back the tears. I looked down at her hand and saw that her left ring finger was missing, along with the ring. I had walked all the way to New Vegas to buy her that ring. Now some Legion bastard was probably wearing it on his belt as some sort of sick trophy. Not for long, though. By God, not for very long at all.
I gave the area a quick once-over. The signs of battle were everywhere, and I could see that the people here had made a good fight of it. There were more bodies within the confines of the Ranch, most of them laying as they had fallen but with a few lined up and executed as my family had been. Only the children and some of the younger women were missing. The Legion liked to take the young and the women back as slaves or captives or . . . pleasure. I didn't seen my uncle's family among the bodies, my aunt or either of my cousins. They had been taken, then. I shuddered to think of what had been or was being done to them. I found Jed Matthews and his sons on the wall. All three had died fighting, their weapons taken from their bodies but the shells and wounds were still there to show their bravery. There was no sign of his daughter, and I knew better than to go to look at his husbandry farm. A distant column of smoke told me all I needed to know.
There were blood spots on the perimeter where legionnaires had fallen. The bodies had been carried away, probably by the last of the fighters before they were executed, and down the hill a found what was left of a pyre. Charred skeletons and bits of bone were all that was left. Served them right. I hope they just keep burning in whatever world comes after this one. I counted the skulls in the pyre and they amounted to twelve men dead, while the blood spots numbered sixteen. So there were men wounded in that party. Pretty good, boys. Pretty damn good, alright! The people I knew here would never have gone down without a fight, and they had made the red-clad bastards pay for their small victory here.
Scouting around, I studied the sign and tried to figure out just what had happened. From the tracks I figured that they must have come in the early morning, catching the place by surprise just when everyone was coming out for their morning chores. They hit our place first and little Ricky had made a fight of it, but the trailer was cut off and there was just no chance of defending. The legionnaires had swarmed the trailer and killed off my family, then come for Wolfhorn itself. By then the others would have been ready for them, though, and I figured that they had downed at least six or seven men in the first charge, then another three in the second attack. The last three had been taken down after the wall was breached, hand-to-hand. Mick Matthews had accounted for at least one, which was no surprise. Mick was the best man I've ever seen with a knife or a machete. The Legion had made the survivors police up their dead, burn them, then lined them up and executed them before setting the stockade ablaze. The watch towers and the bunkhouse facing east were oddly intact. The only reason I could think of for that was to give a false sense of security to anyone looking west.
Parched, I went to the well for a cool drink and a chance to cool off. I turned the pump wheel and the water came out cool and clear from the spout, and cupping my hand I took a big drink. Immediately I spit out. It tasted metallic, dirty, and I heard my pocket Geiger counter went crazy. I held it to the spout and caught some of the water on the sample pad, and the count went straight into the red zone. The sons of bitches couldn't stop at murder and rapine, they had to poison the water too?! These men really were monsters. These were the kind of men that just didn't deserve to be alive, something that I made up my mind right there and then to correct.
The trail of the raiding party led down the slope and into Wolfhorn Canyon. The canyon was deep and cut by cracked, eroded old ribbon of concrete and asphalt that was the old highway. It had been a popular ambush spot for Viper and Scorpion Gunslingers before the ranch had been built, and now that the place was out of the way it was sure to become so again. The trail went cold at the highway, vanishing onto the bare asphalt, but there was no doubt as to where they were going. The road led through the canyon and went on over the bare desert beyond, and at the mouth of the canyon was Nipton. I'd been there before and it was a lively place. There were two bars, three brothels, several independent cribs where the ladies would ply their trade, and a general store that supplied just about anything that a man could want. The place made a pile of money playing to all sides and never siding with one or the other. The NCR didn't like it very much, but it was a place where the troops could unwind and have a little morale boost. It was also independent, which meant it was one less place for them to commit troops.
I knew better than to follow the trail into the canyon itself. It was just too good a place for a man with a rifle to be watching their back trail. By now they had to know that they would be pursued. The fight at Wolfhorn would have drawn definite attention, or so they must have thought, and if I knew Vulpes then he would have at least one man stationed at a high point to watch for pursuit. The tracks leading away from the Ranch had been fresh, no more than a day old. If someone had been left behind to watch, he might still be there.
I skirted along the north side of the canyon, keeping low and to the best of cover when I could find it. I kept a careful eye on the opposite ridge and listened carefully for any sound that seemed out of place. This was deadly country on a good day, and the addition of those Legion dogs only made it more so. And then there was me. That massacre back there at Wolfhorn had left me with a murderous rage and right now there was only one way to sate it. Never in my life had I set out to kill any man, but now for the first time I felt the urge to kill. I wanted to find the monsters that had killed my family and do for them what they had done for my folks. I wanted to hunt down every last man of them and gut-shoot them, then leave them on the sand for the Geckos and the coyotes. I've never been a trouble-hunter and I don't like men that do so, but this time it was different. They had taken from me and now I intended to get some back.
The country was rugged here and the land was broken and jagged from untold millennia of wind, rain, and heat. Always, there was the heat. Down in the canyon the heat would be rising to well over a hundred degrees in a few hours, while up here on the rim it would be about five or ten degrees cooler on average. Above me the sky was a dull brass and the sun already beat down mercilessly. Heat waves danced in the distance and their shimmering lines painted imaginary lakes across the horizon. I'd known men that followed those lakes in search for water. They had all died chasing the relief of water in the desert that they would never find. My clothes were already stiff with dried sweat and now I felt it trickling down my cheeks and back. I stopped an hour or so after leaving the ranch and ate some jerked meat washed down with canteen water. It sloshed around, half-empty. There would be water in Nipton, if the Legion hadn't poisoned that, too, and I could get supplies there as well. I took my hat from my head and wiped the sweatband, sloshed a little water on my brow, then combed out my hair with my fingers.
Something flickered in the brush ahead of me. Instantly I was on my belly, rifle in hand with the hammer cocked, and I was studying that brush like a Brotherhood Scribe studying some ancient text. I saw it again a few minutes later, a flicker of light like sunlight on a rifle barrel or a blade. I inched my way through the brush, crawling on my belly for a bit and then after a few yards I rose to a crouching walk. I saw the light two more times as whoever it was shifted position. I wanted to get a shot at him, but when I got to a spot where I could see through the brush I saw that it was a Recruit legionnaire. He was on his belly and he had him a new-looking Hunting Rifle in his hands, and he was looking down into the canyon over that rifle's sights. He was situated behind a shelf of rock that would make him invisible from below and his outline was hidden from view from the south and north by a thick stand of creosote bush. If I had come up that canyon along the road, he would have killed me.
He was watching down into that canyon pretty intently. He wasn't just looking for pursuit or waiting to ambush some poor passerby for loot and gear. There were better places around the rim where a man would have a better field of fire and greater visibility over the surrounding area and where he could go down to collect his kill easier. That spot he was in was right on top of a sheer drop of thirty or more feet with a steep talus slope at the bottom of that. To me, he seemed to be acting more like a sentry or a lookout.
I put down my repeater, real gentle-like, and with careful fingers I slid my Bowie from its sheath. I moved up closer to him, choosing each step with care and keeping to the soft earth where my boots would make no sound. I held that knife low and with the cutting edge up, ready for a strike, and I kept my left hand up and ready to block or grasp. He just had no idea that I was there at all. He was completely focused on the canyon floor and he didn't think that anyone could come up on him through that brush. He should've spent a little time fighting Tribals before they sent him out here.
I was about five feet from him when he started to turn his head my way. Whether it was to check his back or just to crane his neck and loosen the muscles, I don't know. All I knew was that I could let him see me first and try to bring that rifle up or shout down to anyone that might be around. I ran those last couple of steps and hooked my left hand around his mouth to stifle the cry that he'd started to make. His hand reached for the machete at his belt, but before his fingers could close around the haft I drew the blade of that Bowie across his throat and severed both major vessels. I held him tight and he flopped around some for a bit, but after a minute or so he went limp and then he was dead.
Scooping up the dead man's rifle and ammunition, of which there wasn't much, I moved back into the rocks a little ways and found a spot where there was a crack in a huge shelf of rock that would let me look down in the canyon and remain unseen myself. That fella had been looking down there without his rifle trained on the road, which told me that he wasn't looking for an ambush. He was guarding something, something down there in the road. I slipped up to that crack in the rock and took off my hat before peeking up over the rock shelf.
There were twenty of them in all. It looked like there were a dozen young women, most of them between the ages of about fifteen to twenty with a couple that might have been thirteen or so and one that looked to be in her thirties, and huddled in the middle of the group there were five little boys. None of them could have been older than nine years old. The women and boys were huddled against the rock wall in a kind of cubby or hollow place, and in the mouth of the hollow were standing three legionnaires, one Veteran and two Recruits. They had a fire going and I could smell that spicy food of theirs cooking, mixed in with the smell of some kind of strong tea that I didn't recognize.
The prisoners were eating what looked like rice and some kind of vegetables and their guards were along the side of the road in sort of a three-pointed half-circle around the captives. One of them, the Veteran, was cutting up an apple with his knife and eating it in the strips while the two Recruits were joking back at forth and pointing at the group of captives. I couldn't tell exactly what was being said, some of it being in their Latin-like tongue, but I definitely heard "That one's mine" and "She's a good one".
From my position to that camp it couldn't have been more than sixty yards. It was an easy shot, even though the cliff and the downward angle would make it more difficult than usual. I eased my rifle up and took a bead on the Veteran's chest.
I had never really liked killing from ambush. Somehow it just seemed low to me. The men that I put down had certainly killed more than a few men from hiding, and even some women and kids, but the thought of shooting a man when he didn't know it was coming had always irked me whenever we would lay in wait for a Legion patrol or raiding party. This time, though, I didn't feel a thing. All I could think of was the sight of my family's bodies back there at the farm. These men had been there for that. It might be even be that same Veteran that had brought the blade down on my Ma, my brother and sisters, and my Jenny. My Jenny . . .
I took a fine bead on his chest and wrapped my finger around the trigger, tightening it ever so slightly, then took in a breath and let it out slowly. The gun jumped in my hands and the report of the shot echoed like a cannon through the canyon and I saw dust leap from his armor. His body jerked and he stiffened up a moment as he fell forward into the sand. I levered another round in and shifted targets to the nearest Recruit, who was swinging his repeater up from the sling on his shoulder. I took quick aim and fired, seeing dust jump from his armor and red cloak, then fired again as fast as I could work the lever.
A bullet struck the rock a foot from my face, showering me with fragments. I replaced the shell and shifted to the last Recruit, who was darting into the cover of an alcove in the rock. He was near the captives where a bullet might ricochet off the rock wall and potentially hurt one of them, so I would have to watch my fire. I rolled over twice and held a steady aim on the spot where the Recruit had vanished behind the rocks, my finger on the trigger and taking up slack little by little. I couldn't see anything of him behind the solid red wall. Then I looked closer. I could see a bit of his sandal just peaking out from the bottom of the rock wall, just the end of the leather sandal and a few of his toes.
I squeezed off my shot and saw blood spray from his foot and onto the sandy canyon floor. He screamed in pain and fell into the open, holding his bloody leg, and before I could lever another shot off he brought up his .357 Revolver and thumbed off a shot, then another, both of which struck the rock near me. I rolled back over to my original position and started to take aim at him again, but a movement behind him stopped me. He was starting to pull himself up on his one good leg, thumbing the hammer of his revolver and spraying the canyon rim with bullets, when suddenly the oldest of the women and the two thirteen-year-olds jumped him. The oldest girl had taken the machete off the dead Veteran, and once the Recruit was down there was a flash of light on the blade, a yell and a grunt of pain, and then some of the happiest cheers that I have ever heard.
A minute or so goes by before I decide it's safe to leave my place in the rocks. Carefully I rise from my spot, rifle held high and my muscles bunched in anticipation of a bullet. Those shots would have echoed down the canyon for a long ways, maybe even to Nipton or close to it, and there was no way of knowing if their was another man in hiding somewhere. They'd had one sniper on lookout, so why not two? My every muscle was ready for the shot and I was ready to dive for cover again at any second as I rose from the low jumble of rocks. Nothing. Nothing happened. No shot, no bullet, no nothing.
I picked my way down the slope of the canyon by an eyebrow of trail that just barely showed against the rock. By the time I got down to the canyon floor the now free captives were already digging into the food that had been cooking over the fire. The spices smelled stronger now and it was almost like my nose was on fire with every breath. I don't think they really cared how hot it was. Those legionnaires had been eating some kind of chicken and rice stew and that strong tea, while the prisoners had been given just a little bit of rice that, judging by the little that was on the ground where they had thrown it down, had just been barely cooked. They were all thin and probably hadn't been fed more than the bare minimum for a day or two. I was a mite hungry myself but I didn't say anything. They needed it more than me.
Quickly I went from one corpse to the other and collected their weapons, gear, and ammo. The Veteran had been the best armed of the lot with a Cowboy Repeater and a .357 mag revolver, while the Recruits had a Caravan Shotgun and a revolver, respectively, plus their machetes. I laid the guns out and checked the actions and the loads, counted out the ammunition, and set down to contemplating on the situation. I had to get back to Nelson and report on what I'd seen, but now I was stuck with a passel of worn-out refugees that just a moment before had been on their way to a slaver's camp. I had to get them off somewhere safe, and something told me that I couldn't just sent them back home.
"All right," I said when they had eaten their fill, "what happened?"
"We're from Nipton," the oldest girl replied, "or, at least, we were. A group of Legion came into town the other day and took over the town. They held a lottery for the people in town and the Powder Gangers, but the NCR soldiers that were in town they just killed outright. They handed out the tickets one by one and read off the results like death sentences. They killed most of them with machetes, the rest they crucified."
"Convicts from the prison. They've been raiding the desert for a couple of weeks now. They took over the prison and killed all the guards and ever since they've been calling themselves the Powder Gangers. I guess all that dynamite and blasting powder they use went to their heads."
Great. As if things couldn't get any better. A Legion invasion force at Cottonwood Cove, a massive raiding party on the loose in the southern Mojave, and now a whole prison's worth of convicts on the loose with government explosives. Fan-fuckin'-tastic.
"What happened in Nipton? How did they take the town without a fight?"
"The mayor sold us out to the Powder Gangers, thinking they could capture the NCR troops and sell off their loot. The Legion were supposed to just take the soldiers, but they rounded us all up in the town square and made us all watch while they burned the mayor alive on a pyre. Then they singled out the young girls and kids and took us all out of the crowd for slaves, then handed out those damn lottery tickets. The first ones to draw were hacked to death, then the second round were burned, and then they crucified the last set.
"Two men were left at the end. They drew their tickets and one of them was allowed to go free. Some skinny little punk with glasses who thought he was the luckiest man alive. The other they just beat half to death with hammers. They crippled his legs and then just locked him in the general store to die."
"That's the Legion for ya. How many are there?"
"Twenty or so came into town. They took the town without a fight, but after the drawing their commander sent some of his men north into the mountains. He told them to 'set up shop' somewhere out of the way. They took the Powder Gangers that were left with them as slave labor."
"Did the commander have a wolf skin on his head and carry a Ripper? Sunglasses, a deep voice, and a cold presence?"
"Yeah, that's him."
Vulpes Inculta . . .
A scream came from the camp and caught my attention. I looked over and saw one of the younger girls pointing up into the rocks along the canyon rim, and when I followed her pointing finger I saw a flash of red vanishing into the jumble of boulders and brush. I upped with my rifle and took a quick aim at the movement, following it through the rocks at likely places where a man might come out of cover. A patch of red appeared between two boulders and I fired, levering in another shell before the report even died away. There was a shout of pain and I saw blood on the rocks, but the man was gone and I didn't see him again. A rock fell from the cliff a hundred yards down the canyon a minute later and then I saw a faint column of dust rising against the copper sky. He was gone, and he was heading straight toward Nipton. Aww, damn.