No one needed to tell me that I was really in for it. There I was in the middle of the Mojave with no food, little enough water, and enemies in every possible direction, and now here I was stuck with a passel of women and kids that all looked to be on the ragged edge. That man that I wounded would be hurt bad, for I was fairly certain that I'd gotten him in the body or at least the arm or shoulder, but Nipton was just a few miles to the west and I knew that he would be going for help. The shooting may not have alerted anyone, for the canyon walls would have shielded the sound somewhat, but once he got to town with my bullet in him it was sure to bring a whole world of hurt down on us. I'd killed their men and I'd spoiled their raid, and now I'd taken their captives as well. If I knew the Legion at all, they would have me fitted for a cross as soon as they heard the wounded man's report.
There was no time to waste, so we wasted none. I went back to the dead legionnaires and searched them again, this time for supplies and their canteens. The canteens were mostly full, having been filled in town, and there was a good supply of rice and that strong tea, but there was little else and it would not be enough for eighteen of us. The real problem was water. None of the prisoners had any on them and the canteens wouldn't last the lot of us long at all. Even with careful rationing, there wouldn't be enough for more than a day. I had to get these people to a safe place and the nearest safe town would have to be Novac, a full two days' walk from here and over some mighty rough terrain.
As soon as they were all done eating, I kicked dirt over the fire and took the pot off its hook to be carried away. I gave the dead sniper's Hunting Rifle and the little ammunition he'd had to that oldest girl. I asked around to see if any of the others had any firearms experience, and when the oldest boy and one of the other ladies raised their hands I gave the repeater to the boy and one of the revolvers to the girl and the repeater to the boy. He took that rifle like he was born to it, which most boys were in this hard land, and that girl took the revolver tentatively but with a calm assurance of familiarity. As for that oldest gal, she taken that Hunting Rifle in her hands and tested the action and the sights just as any First Recon sniper would. She had sand, that one.
I took out my store of ammunition and filled the loops in my belt, reloaded my repeater, and handed out a few handfuls of cartridges to the boy and the younger girl. I taken that spare revolver and filled the empty chambers, then stuck it behind my belt and led the way east. We came out of the canyon and turned north just above the ruins of Wolfhorn Ranch. We spread out as much as was safely possible and went at a slow pace so as to kick up as little dust as possible. I led off at the head of the column, with that oldest gal and her rifle off on the left flank, the younger girl on the right, and the boy and his repeater bringing up the rear.
There was no chance of wiping out our trail. Most of the time I preferred to move quiet and fast and to wipe out my trail whenever possible, but this time there was just no way. Eighteen people churn up a lot of dirt and leave a lot of tracks and looking back on our back trail I could see that even a blind man could follow us in the dark. We had to move fast, but the kids would slow us down and most of the women looked to be in bad shape. It was likely that those Legion bastards had been at them had been at them, or planned to, and all of them had been roughed up in one way or another. That camp back there hadn't been a regular day's camp. Those fellows back there had probably planned to set up in that rocky hollow and have a go at those women in the privacy of the canyon, then head off and sell off what was left at Cottonwood Cove or the Fort. I shed no tears for them. The world was just short four more assholes.
It was slow going. The same ground I could have covered in a few hours on my own took us the rest of the day. We camped in a hollow in the hills where there was cover and where a fire could be made in concealment, although I chanced only a hatful of flame made from creosote bush that would offer no smoke. Looking back, I couldn't see any light or smoke from other fires, but I had seen dust on our back trail for the last couple of hours. They were coming. Unless I missed my guess, they would catch us tomorrow and we would be out on the open desert when they did.
We cooked the last of the food that we'd taken from those legionnaires over our little fire and the oldest girl brewed up some of that tea. I preferred coffee most of the time but this Legion stuff wasn't half bad. It was dark and strong and almost as good as the stuff that we Rangers had in our own camps. I drank little, knowing that the others needed it more than me, and I ate only a little jerky that was left in my satchel. I allowed all of them a swallow or two of water, to save the supply, but even with my rationing we used up most of what we had between the tea and our own drinking. We had to have water and we had to have it soon or else the desert heat would account for most of us. This kind of trip could kill even a healthy man and most of this crowd was in bad shape, either from their ordeal in Nipton or from the hard trek we'd made. The kids were done in and most of the women were tired and stiff, all except for that oldest one. She looked like she had just been out for a Sunday stroll and she squatted near the fire with that rifle across her knees like she was a woman born to it.
It's strange how times can be so hard and so violent and yet still bring out some fine things at the same time. I was still reeling from the loss of my Jenny, although I did my best to keep it inside, but looking at that red-headed woman across the fire made me remember that there was still some good left in the world. She was a beautiful woman, even with all the dirt, grime, and blood that was on her face and arms. She had a fine shock of bright red hair almost orange when it was clean, and her skin was the color of nutmeg. She was a few inches shorter than me, then again I do stand six feet and four inches in my socks, when I have socks, and she was built like a woman that had seen hard work in her time. I had thought her to be in her thirties when I first saw her from the ridge, but now that I got a good look at her she looked much closer to my own age. None of the twenty years of my life had offered me anything in the way of softness or ease and many a man said that I looked much older than my years. This woman looked to be in the same boat.
Dawn came too soon, as it often does, and when I rolled out of my blanket and started them going again there was just the faintest light in the east. They were all stiff from the day before and none of them wanted to get started, but after a tongue lashing from me they all got up and we headed out again. I didn't like speaking harshly to women and kids like that, but there was little else I could do to get them going. It was a damn sight better than what they would have gotten from the Legion. Those legionnaires back yonder would have run them till they dropped and killed the ones that fell behind. Only the boys would have been spared, since the Legion was always willing to take in and brainwash youngsters to fight for them. I'd seen kids that old and younger taken into training camps and taught to kill before they were old enough to have zits on their face. I'd had to kill them, too.
Just before we left I offered one last pass of the canteens. They were all low when they came back around to me, with one of my own and two of those from the legionnaires coming back empty and the last two with just a finger or two of water left in them. I poured the last of the water into one canteen and lashed the others together, handing them to a little girl with a pretty smile to carry, and then we set out across the desert once more in the same manner as before.
We had to have water, and I knew it. The air was cool and there was a soft breeze when we started out in the morning, but in less than an hour the sun was up and the heat of the day was already beating down on us. Heat waves danced across the horizon and our clothes were soon dark with sweat stains. The kids were soon dragging their feet, and I was too, but we couldn't stop. That dust was still in the distance behind us when I looked over my shoulder, and they were getting closer. Those men back there would be fit and moving fast, and they would have blood in their eyes after seeing the bodies of their comrades. They would all want to get at the women as well, and have the honor of taking back the captives. Any other time I would have gone back and laid a little ambush for them, but this was no ordinary time. I had a taste for Legion blood and there was still a long way to go before I could call my family avenged, but I had to get these people to safety before I went out hunting scalps.
I led the way across a barren landscape and under a brassy sky. The heat was becoming unbearable and way off in the distance I could see the faint blue of faraway lakes that weren't there. A couple of the kids said they wanted to go to them, but I knew better. Those mirage lakes were one of the desert's many cruel tricks and one that had lured many a good man to his death. I kept them all moving and pointed the way north and slightly east toward Broc Flower Cave. The cave was a good landmark, standing alone on the bare flat the way it did, and there was a sort of natural water tank there where rainwater and runoff collected. The winter had been a rainy one, so there should still be water in that tank. It was irradiated, probably from some hidden pile of waste deep in the ground, but it would be worth the risk. Without that water, we'd never make it into Novac. We'd get some radiation poisoning from it, but I still had some Rad-X left and the doc in Novac could take care of us . . . if we made it there.
It was hot. Terribly, horrendously hot. After a few hours of walking my boots started to feel heavy, sweat stained my shirt and trickled down my brow, and when I tried to wet my cracked lips my tongue was dry and swollen. I wanted to stop for a drink and a rest, but I knew we couldn't stop. That dust was getting closer all the time and there was nothing ahead of us but a lot of dry land and danger. Hard men lurked out here, Vipers, Scorpions, and now Powder Gangers, not to mention the Golden Geckos that lurked around that old nuclear lab to the northeast and the Deathclaws that were supposed to be migrating south. They usually stayed to the west of here along the Long 15, but they'd been known to come over the mountains.
"They're coming, aren't they?"
The voice came from off to my right, and when I turned to look I saw that tall red-haired girl. She was walking just behind me now and she looked dead beat, as we all did, but there was still that fire in her eyes and she carried that rifle like it was ready to swing up at any moment.
"Yes, they are."
"Pretty plain about it, aren't you? The least you could do is dress it up for me."
"Nothing to dress up. They're comin', plain and simple. If they catch us, we'll have a fight and I doubt that we'll be able to stand them off for long."
"I thought so. I saw the dust. Looks like a dozen or so."
"Less. They like to kick up extra dust to make it look like there's more of them than there really are. I'd say there's about five or six men in that group. That's still too many for just us to handle out on this open ground."
"I can fight. So can Reese, if the time comes."
"The boy you gave the rifle to. I've seen him shoot before and he's good. His father was the best hunter in town."
"He's still just a kid. I'd rather leave him out of it, but a man has to do what he has to do when the time comes. I wasn't much older than him when I had my first fight."
"I've seen younger boys in worse situations. There's been a lot of that going around these last few years. By the way, I'm Angeline. I didn't catch your name."
"I didn't offer it."
She didn't like that, and I didn't blame her. I was being a first-rate douche bag right now and any other time I would be kicking myself for being so rude, but this was no time for talking to a woman. She was pretty enough, take that grime off and she'd be downright beautiful, but I was in no mood to be around or concerned with a woman now. Besides, my Jenny was just barely in the ground. I hadn't had time to mourn for her and the others, and it wasn't likely that I would any time soon, and look at her and that fine shock of red hair only made me think of Jenny.
It was getting hotter and I was starting to drag my feet more. My skin was red from the sun and when I tried to wet my lips my tongue was like a piece of sandpaper. My vision was getting foggy and my head was swimming, but I kept plodding along as best as I could. Angeline was in the same shape, but the two of us had it easy. I could only imagine what those kids were going through. A couple of times I looked back at them and saw the little ones either falling behind or being helped by the older kids. The girls looked beaten up and worn out, their hair matted and dirty and their clothes grimy from travel and their ordeal, but they were still going. Most of them had been raised out here and they knew what they had to do. They all knew what would happen if we didn't get to that water. Or if those legionnaires caught up to us.
We topped out on a ridge and I looked to the northeast, and about three or four miles away I saw the lone rocky peak that would be Broc Flower Cave. It was a single spur of rock rising over an otherwise flat and open desert where little else grew besides dry grass, barrel cactus, and, of course, broc flowers. The sky was a brass dome above us and the sun was almost at its noon zenith now. A couple more hours in this heat and we'd be done for. I went back and gathered up the kids and told them we'd have to move fast now, picking up one of the little girls and telling the bigger girls to carry the smaller ones. Angeline picked up another girl, her rifle hanging by the sling across her back just as mine was, and we were off.
Twice I looked over my shoulder to look for dust, but it wasn't there anymore. Now where would they have gone? By rights, they should be gaining on us or even have caught us by now. Why would they stop? Had they given up? There was no chance of that. They had to catch us. They had to get their captives back and they had to avenge their men. Where were they? If only my radio worked! Several times I'd tried to get a signal on it, but apparently the radiation from Searchlight was still interfering with it. It wouldn't be much longer now. It was just another mile. Just one more mile.
I could smell the water before we got to it. It was that fresh, cool, moist smell that I had taken for granted many a time. We all smelled it, and when we came closer the kids all got a spring in their steps. A flock of crows came up out of the hollow at our approach. They had been enjoying the coolness of the hollow and the shade that the lone little peak offered. That water was like a thing out of heaven, catching the light of the sun and sparkling like a bed of diamonds. I all but fell into the edge of it, putting the little girl I'd been carrying down at the water's edge and letting her drink. I cupped my hands and poured some into my mouth, loving the delicious cool of it and letting the moisture soak into my system. It was brackish and had a sort of metallic taste, probably from the radiation, but it was water. Wonderful, cool, clear, life-giving water.
If there had been any legionnaires in the area, we would have been dead meat. We all just sort of collapsed on the ground at the water's edge and we drank our fill. Some of the girls went into the water and splashed it at each other, cooling off and having fun in their own way. I filled all the canteens and soaked my handkerchief, wrapping it around my neck and loving the cool feeling of it on my skin. I splashed some water on my face and neck, drank my fill, then took up my repeater and went up the short trail that led to the cave itself. The old plank door was walled up and there were rusty iron bars on the latch, apparently to keep the place locked up. The funny thing was that the locks were all fastened down and one of them had a key broken off in it, as if they were more to keep whatever was inside in rather than whatever's outside out.
I took out my binoculars and studied our back trail from the top of the rock spire, laying flat on the hot rocks and looking through a V-notch at the top where only the top of my head would be visible. I scanned our route and the sparse growth and brush that lay scattered over the plain, searching for any sign of pursuit I searched every fold of the land, every clump of brush for a red tunic, a glint of sunlight on a gun or a blade, dust from running footsteps, but there was nothing. Either we had lost them or they were just laying out there waiting for us to move on. Why would they do that? Why would they just sit there when we were sitting ducks? It was true that we had a good position here and from that shelf near the door a good rifleman could hold off a fairly large force, but they had to know that we had only two or three people who could fight.
Something came into my mind then, something that Angeline had said earlier about men being sent ahead. Suppose there were men up ahead of us? I looked back down into the hollow where the women and children were playing and laying in the sparse shade. They were tired. We were all done in, and I knew it. We had to have rest and food, and the sun was still beating down hard from high above us. Novac couldn't be more than ten or fifteen miles out, but there was little chance that we'd make it there today. We needed the rest, and nightfall would offer both cover of darkness and some much cooler walking. If there were men camped or waiting ahead of us somewhere, we would be easy prey right now.
The water was enough to last us for weeks if needed, but what we really needed was food. I'd been feeling hungry for the last few miles and right about now my stomach was starting to think that my throat had been cut. There were wild Bighorners in this country, but that would be too much meat to carry and it would take too long to butcher. Mole Rats were prevalent, too, and they would make for an easier kill and a big one would have just enough meat for the lot of us. It was a chance to go out hunting, but without food none of these youngsters would make it much farther. I scrambled down the rocks and found Angeline on the rock shelf in front of the cave door, her rifle trained on the desert and her eyes like those of a hawk. This was a woman who had been up the creek and over the mountain, all right.
"I'm going out hunting. These kids need some fresh meat and I wouldn't mind some myself. You keep a sharp eye and cover my back."
"You're crazy! There's Legion out there."
"Those that were behind us broke off somewhere. Didn't you say there were men up here already?"
"Yes. Their commander sent them this way to 'set up shop'. They had some Powder Gangers for workers and they took most of the supplies they brought in."
"Seven or eight, I think. They took some tents and building materials from town and most of the food. They said they were going northeast, somewhere near Charlie."
Ranger Station Charlie . . .
"That'll be somewhere near here. You keep that rifle handy and tell Reese to watch those kids close. Don't let any of them wander off. The last thing we need is some little girl getting lost in the rocks and crying for momma."
"Their mommas are mostly dead. I'll watch them. You be careful yourself, Ranger."
"Angeline, you're quite a woman. A man would be lucky to have you."
I took up my rifle and headed down the thread of trail that led to the plain below. I went to the water again and took two handfuls of it, then splashed some on my face and went to the edge of the hollow where Reese and two of the girls were watching the desert. I told him to be watchful and be careful with his rifle, then with a quick movement I was over the lip of the hollow and into the folds of the land just before it. I walked low and held my rifle ready. Out here the grazers could be just as dangerous as the predators. Bighorners roamed here and they would defend their herds with a vengeance, turning anything that came near their calves into a red pulp with those huge horns. Mole Rats were just as bad, defending their young viciously and attacking anything that came near them. I'd seen them bite men clean in half with those buck teeth.
The hills were to the west of me now, towering into a rocky escarpment at the peak that formed the lower arm of the Highland Range. Somewhere west of here was Ranger Station Charlie, nestled in a canyon and almost impossible to find if a body wasn't looking for it. They had a nice big radio tower there and would get better signal from my own radio. I hadn't tried it since coming to the cave, but I planned to try it again once I got back.
I wasn't much more than a hundred yards from the cave when I saw two Mole Rats feeding in a deep gash near the little bluff that went for hundreds of yards before falling out onto the barren plain to the east. The rats were big ones, two males, it looked like, and it was an easy shot. I raised my rifle and eared back the hammer, took a fine aim at the neck, and then fired. The big rat dropped in his tracks and his friend barked and bellowed at me. Another shot at his feet spooked him and he went running off into the desert. I'd known men that would have shot them both, but we only needed one and there was no reason to kill them just for the hell of it. I went down and dressed out my kill, skinned and quartered it, and put the meat in the skin to be hoisted over my shoulder. It was a heavy load, but I didn't have far to go. An hour's work and I was finished, and within ten minutes I was back at camp. The youngsters had already gathered some creosote bush and broc flower stalks for a fire along with some big banana yucca fruit.
We cooked the meat over two small fires that made almost no smoke, cutting the yucca fruit into slices and boiling water for more of that strong Legion tea. It was stout stuff, all right, and it was just what we needed. The meat was good and we all ate our fill, and after the meal the kids all laid out for a nap while Angeline and I stayed on the shelf on lookout. I took out the radio and tried it once or twice, but there was still nothin but static.
"So," Angeline said after a few minutes, "what brings you to this little corner of hell?"
"I was sent to warn Searchlight and Nipton about the Legion landing in Cottonwood."
"Well, I guess that mission was a failure."
"Only if I don't get you folks to safety. At least something will come out alright."
"If you say so. I know what those bastards will do if they catch up to us. You just keep believing that you can get us through and I'll keep covering your ass while you try. All I know is that if they get me then they'll step over a few friends to do it."
"Just out of curiosity, how does a woman like you end up in a town like Nipton? I never got there myself, but I hear it was a lively place. Seems like a woman like you would be better out in the wastes."
"I was out there for a while. I went over the trail to Utah a couple times with the caravans, roamed around California for a while, I even went east into Arizona back before Caesar got a hold of that particular area. I lived in Colorado for a little while, but my husband was killed and I had to drift again."
"You were married?"
"Sort of. No priests or ceremonies like in New Canaan, but we were good to each other."
"It was the same with my wife and me. No priests or ceremonies, but I loved her."
"She was with my folks back at Wolfhorn Ranch. Then these Legion guys came through. No one made it out."
"So am I. So, what does a pretty wanderer do in a town of hustlers and whores?"
"I worked in one of the brothels. Top floor."
Now that was a shocker. A tough woman like her, I never would have guessed that she was a top-cap working girl. She was certainly beautiful enough, but there was just something about her spirit that made me think that she wouldn't do such a thing. But times were hard and a lot of women turned to it when there wasn't much else. I couldn't blame her and she lost none of my respect. If anything, I half-wished that I had taken time to visit Nipton myself before me and Jenny were together. Then again, she probably hadn't been there that long. It would have been money well spent.
A crackle came over the radio in my hand and a voice penetrated the static for a second, catching both of our attentions. I worked the tuning knob and the signal came in a little clearer, then a little clearer, and a little more until finally the voice came through loud and clear.
"This is Ranger Station Charlie broadcasting to persons unknown. Do you copy?"
"Affirmative," I answered back, "this is Daniel Weathers, Bravo Company, Mojave Rangers out of Nelson. I am traveling toward Novac with seventeen civilian hostages, mostly children. Am being pursued by Legion forces, request immediate assistance."
"Legion? No Legion around here, Ranger."
"Negative, negative, large Legion force in vicinity. Searchlight and Nipton are gone, I repeat, Searchlight and Nipton are gone. Multiple hostiles in pursuit, more in the hills at some kind of camp. Request immediate assistance from any nearby force."
We went back and forth for a while, me and that comms officer, and he just didn't believe me. Well, maybe he just couldn't believe me. After all, who would have thought that a Legion force could penetrate so deep into NCR territory so easily? If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I doubt that I would have believed it myself. Finally I got him to listen and he said that all forces were engaged at that moment, that most of the Rangers and soldiers at the station had already been sent to Nelson to reinforce the garrison, but that he would do all he could for us. In the meantime he would radio ahead to Novac and advise them of our situation. A lot of good that would do us, but at least it was something.
I didn't blame them. If there were Legion in the area and most of their men were on the way to Nelson, then that meant that there couldn't be more than half a dozen or less Rangers in the station. Charlie was in a good spot and could be easily defended against a small force, but if that whole raiding party decided to attack it then they would be in for a hard fight. We would be in for one ourselves, assuming that we got out at all.
The sun was going down now, almost halfway behind the mountains. It wasn't close to full night yet, but the mountains' shade would give us a couple more hours of coolness in which to travel. I was tired, damn tired, but we needed to move. With luck, and we would need it, we would make Novac by the middle of the night. The sun sank behind the western mountains and the air almost immediately became cooler, the heat of the day swiftly giving way to the night air. When the sun was completely shaded behind the high peaks, I picked up my rifle, clipped the radio to the back of my belt, and with Angeline behind me we went down to the hollow and quietly roused those that were asleep.
The ground was hot under our boots when we started north again. The sand and loose soil gave off a heat like a furnace, but the night air was already cooling off the desert and the wind coolly kissed the sweat on our clothes. It's funny how cool it gets in the desert at night. Hell, sometimes it gets downright cold. In the winter months there was even snow on the higher hills for a couple of months. As I walked along at the head of the column, my rifle held by the action in my left hand, I couldn't help but marvel at the beauty of the sunset. The sun was still up and would be for a couple of hours, but the light coming over the mountains was as pretty as any real sunset. The golds, oranges, yellows, reds, and purples shone on the thin air like some Old World painting. It was one of those rare and beautiful things that a body just takes for granted most of the time.
"Prepare yourself for battle, profligate! Your end has come!"
There were five of them, that I could see, and they came over the low ridge to the left of us like specters out of the desert. They'd been just watching us, probably for hours, and they let us just get started before they came for us. Typical Legion. Give them just a little hope, then come out and crush that hope in an instant.
Like a damn fool, I'd been walking with my rifle in one hand and my hand on the action. There was just no chance of getting that gun up in time to do any good. The one that had spoken was in the center of the line of men, directly to my left, and he was raising a throwing spear for a shot. He was a tall Veteran, stocky and well built under his armor, and the rest were Recruits and another Veteran all armed with rifles of one sort or another. They had us dead to rights, or so they thought.
I had never been one to pause and panic or try to think when the time for action came. I was always one to go at my problems head on and let the cards fall where they may. So when that fella on the hill spoke and I turned to look at him, I just palmed my six-shooter and fired. It's easier to draw to the left than to the right, and from the angle they had they could only see my rifle and the revolver in my belt. They probably thought that I was left-handed or something, so that gun in my hand came as something of a shock.
That first man fell to the ground at my first shot, dropping his spear and grabbing at his neck with both hands. My sudden shot had caught them all flat-footed and for just a brief second they all stood there in shock. It was all I needed. As soon as that first man was down, I thumbed the hammer and fired at a Recruit to my right. He took the bullet in the chest and his body jerked with the impact, so I thumbed another shot that hit him in the neck. The ball was open now and I dropped my rifle and drew the other pistol with my left hand. Angeline's rifle boomed somewhere behind me and I saw flame leap from the guns of the legionnaires, but I didn't move. I just stood where I was, hammering away with both revolvers.
I must have looked a sight, standing there in all that hell like some idiotic statue, but at that particular moment I just didn't give a damn. They had us in the open and with our guns down, outnumbered and outgunned, and for all I knew it was all over right now. So if this was the end then I intended to take as many of them with me as possible. I owed it to my family, to the people in Searchlight, to the ones they had murdered in Nipton, to all of their victims. If this was my time to go to Hell, then I wasn't going alone.
I fired both pistols at the nearest man, the two shots sounding as one and dropping him where he stood. A man dropped as he came over the hill, his head all but vanishing in a spray of red mist. Angeline's .308 packed a lot of punch at that range. I heard a child scream and something burned my neck, but I kept firing. Bullets cut the air around me and the dirt at my feet. All five of the original attackers had either fallen or ducked for cover, but there were others coming over the hill. I thumbed a shot from my right-hand gun and hit a Veteran in the guts, making him crumple and fall, and when I thumbed back the hammer to finish him the gun clicked empty. I dropped it into my holster and fanned the spare with the heel of my hand, dropping him with a head shot.
The last two of them turned and ran away then, one of them holding his shoulder from a bullet that Angeline had put through him. I calmly ejected the shells from the spare revolver and thumbed new ones into the chambers, then stuck it behind my belt and reloaded my own gun as well. Dropping it into my holster again, I turned and picked up my rifle, wiped the dust and dirt from the action, and then turned to survey our situation.
In all, the whole action couldn't have lasted more than ten or twenty seconds. We'd dropped five of their men and wounded at least one more, but their side wasn't the only one that had bled. Turning around, I saw one of the younger girls had been hit in the leg by a stray bullet and that Reese, the brave boy who had fired his gun empty less than twenty feet from me, was dead. Two bullets had entered his chest within inches of each other. He was dead before he hit the ground. For once, I was grateful that the Legion trained their marksmen so well. He was looking up at the world with cold, dead eyes, and after lifting and checking his rifle I reached down and closed his lids.
Five men were down on the Legion side, but not all of them were dead. The man I'd shot in the throat was still alive, clutching at his wound with bloody hands and breathing with great heaving gasps that came out sounding like a sad harmonica. I left the women and kids to cry over Reese, which I was doing myself on the inside, and walked over to his side. He looked at me like a man possessed by hate. Normally I would feel sorry for him, but this time I looked into his eyes and felt nothing at all. He was dying from a bullet I'd put through him and he had deserved what he'd gotten. He and his had laid for a group of women and children and tried to gun them down in cold blood, they had massacred two whole towns and killed off everyone I ever loved, all without mercy. They would get no sympathy from me.
"Okay, pard, here's how this is gonna work. I'm gonna ask you two questions and you're gonna answer them. If you answer them to my satisfaction, I'll help you."
"And if . . . I . . . don't?"
His voice was little more than a raspy whisper from his ruined voice box.
"If you don't, I'll tie your hands and feet down and leave you for the Geckos. I got some attractant in my satchel that I use to hunt 'em. Lie to me or make me think you're lying and I'll dump the whole damn bottle on you and leave you here."
His eyes changed then. I had seen the eyes of countless legionnaires filled with hate, pride, bravado, and sometimes with hopelessness at the final moments before they pulled the trigger on themselves, but this time was different. This time it was something new; fear.
"Alright . . . I'll tell . . . you."
"Good. How many more of you are there?"
He tried to talk, but couldn't get the words out. He held out a bloody hand and held up four fingers.
"Where is your camp?"
With the same hand he pointed to the west and slightly south, indicating a high ridge with a double crest just a mile or so away. I knew there was a hollow just over that hill that would hold a fairly large camp and would offer good concealment. The Rangers had toyed with the idea of putting a station there but decided it was too far behind the lines to be worth the effort.
"Thanks. Now I guess I should help you out, so I'll make it quick."
I took out my knife and lifted his arm to open his veins, the humane way to finish him, but something stopped me. In looking down from his face towards his arm I just naturally glanced at his neck and chest, and when I saw what was hanging on the necklace he wore I almost wept. It was a silver chain with some kind of pendant hanging at the center but on the chain there were several rings, earrings, and charms that had apparently been taken from his kills. Most of them were rough, homemade jewelry that some man had made for his sweetheart or some woman had made for herself, but one stood out. It had a real gold band with a scroll pattern on it and a big piece of turquoise set as the stone. Jenny had always loved turquoise.
I ripped the necklace off him and took the ring from the broken chain. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. This was her ring. This bastard had been there when my family was massacred at Wolfhorn, he might even have been the one that brought the blade down on her. He had been there and he had taken this ring from her. This was my Jenny's ring!
"Where did you get this?", I held the ring close to his face so he could see it, "Where did you get this ring?!"
If he was afraid before, then he was downright petrified now. He saw the hatred and anger in my eyes and I did nothing to hold back the rage that was in my now. I was angry over it all now; over the death of my family, over the raids, over the tortured and murder at Nipton, and now the death of that poor boy just a few yards away. A good boy that had a whole life ahead of him and was now lying dead in the dust from a bullet that some Legion bastard put in him. And now this man had Jenny's ring, MY Jenny's ring!
"Where did you get this?! From Wolfhorn Ranch?! From a red-haired woman with a voice like an angel?! Where did you get this ring?!"
It took a moment for me to realize that I was shaking him by the collar of his armor. I was filled with a rage like I had never felt before and for the first time in my life I wanted to kill a man. He was scared and in pain now, but I felt nothing but an urge to kill. I wanted to rip him limb from limb and leave him staked out in the desert for the coyotes. I wanted him dead!
I sheathed the knife and stood up, trying to get my bearings. I had to calm down. I had to get my head on straight. I had to . . .
"She died screaming . . . and crying."
His voice was tortured and raspy with barely any life at all in it. I doubted that this man had ever had much life in him to begin with. He was smiling with bloody teeth and his hands were on his chest, apparently paralyzed, and there was blood flowing like a fountain from his wound. That was the last straw. I slid my gun from my holster, eared back the hammer, and brought it down for a shot.
"Ranger, no!", I hear Angeline shout behind me, but she's too late.
I don't aim, I just chop down with the gun and squeeze off the shot. My bullet finds its mark and I feel warm blood spatter on my pant legs. His body jerks and he screams in pain, but I hardly hear him I eject the shell and take a fresh one from my belt, thumb it into the chamber, then holster it again as I walk away from his bloody form and his raspy screams. Dying in the desert is a hard way to go. Especially with a hole in your guts.
A minute later and I've gathered all the ammo from the dead legionnaires and busted the stocks of their weapons on the nearby rock shelf. If these were the same men that had pursued us then that would mean that the ones who got away would be going for help now. We had to move and we had to move now. The girls had arranged Reese's body for burial, but there was no time to give him a decent funeral. They covered him in the one blanket they had between them and I took the rifle he'd died wielding to give to one of the older girls. We left then at a brisk pace, me in the lead again and with Angeline and the now armed girl, Sarah, on the left flank. This time I made sure to walk with my rifle in my hands and ready for action.
"That was awful," Angeline said after a couple miles, "the way you shot that man."
"He had it coming."
"He killed my wife and my family. Trust me, he had it coming. They all have it coming."
We had to get to Novac fast. They had lain for us and we had been lucky to come out on top back there. My sudden action had caught them by surprise and given us that split-second of time to react. I knew that we would not be that lucky again. If they caught up to us again, we would be out on the open plain with no chance of taking cover or mounting a defense. They would just sit back in the rocks and pick us off from a distance.
We went by no trail and no path. The desert grew ever cooler in the shadow of the mountain and I could see, miles away, the last of the light from the sun shining over the peaks. Soon it would be full night and the predators would come out. Geckos, Nightstalkers, and Coyotes like to hunt by night and regularly attack even well-armed bands of humans if the opportunity came. I was hoping that if they preferred human meat that they would go for the easy pickings back there at Broc Flower Cave, especially that one with the gut wound. I wanted him to suffer bad, to know how I had felt on the inside when I saw his handiwork. I felt nothing for that man, nothing at all. Angeline could feel sorry for him and the others if she wanted to, but I would never feel that way again. They had taken too much from me for me to give a damn.
It was then that I remembered the stinging feeling on my neck. I put my hand to the spot just below my ear and it came away bloody. I felt again and found that there was a furrow about two inches below the ear where a bullet had taken away some skin, but no more. Another inch to the right and it would have gone through my jugular vein. I didn't feel any other wounds, but I had known men that had been shot several times over and not felt it a bit until it was pointed out to them. Adrenaline could do strange things to people.
The wounded girl was carried by one of the older ones, but she was still slowing us down. It would have been better to have a stretcher made for her, but there was no time to make one. I looked behind us from time to time and saw dust on our back trail. They were coming for us again, and this time they would be coming for blood. They wouldn't stop till they had us, and we had a long way to go.
We passed the rusted old hulk that had been there since the Old World times, something that the locals had been calling the Wrecked Highwayman for as long as anyone could remember, and faraway in the distance I could just make out the form of the large dinosaur statue that marked Novac and its hotel, although it was still just a dark shadow against the rising moon. There was a light beside the statue that could only be the hotel, and somewhere below it there was a barrel fire burning. It couldn't be more than five miles distant, then. We were already tired as hell and the fight had taken a lot out of all of us, as had the death of poor Reese, but we all knew that we had to keep moving. I looked at that dust cloud again and found it closer. They were pushing, all right. They wanted us bad.
We topped out on a low rise and looked into a valley of sorts where there stood an old shanty camp. It was comprised of several sheet-metal shelters that had been built by unskilled hands, all of which housed a rough sleeping cot and the remains of small fires. There was evidence of habitation everywhere, but we were lucky in that the inhabitants were gone at the moment. And it took only a moment for me to know who those inhabitants were. Piles of loot, cans and trash everywhere, parts and broken guns, this was a raider camp as clear as day. It would have to be Vipers, or perhaps Scorpions. Highway 95 was only a mile or two to the east, and beyond that was the old nuclear research lab where I'd heard a pack of Golden Geckos had taken up residence. Travelers steered clear of the lab compound and tried to stay as far west as they could, and they usually walked right into the waiting arms of the raiders. NCR troops had been patrolling the highway and they thought they had cleaned out the last of the outlaw gangs like this, but apparently they had missed one.
I led the group in a wide arc around the camp, skirting the bottom of the mountains and walking the shadow of the hills where our outline would be lost among the rocks. We were past the camp in a moment or two and there was no sign that anyone was coming back to the camp anytime soon. Novac was a mere two miles away. We were home free, if we could just slow down that pack of legionnaires that was coming up on our tail. Even as close as we were, they could still catch us if we couldn't slow them down. There had to be a way to make them ease up, there had to be a way to . . . wait a minute.
"Angeline," I said as I turned off from the head of the column, "keep them moving and don't stop until you get to Novac. Push 'em hard and watch out for these raiders."
"What are you gonna do?"
"I've got a damn fool idea. Maybe it's just damn fool enough to work."
"Then I'll stay here with you."
"There's no time to argue."
"Then don't! There's nothing between here and Novac except us and those Bulls and whatever you have planned, you're sure to need an extra rifle."
I hated to admit it, but she was right. There was no time to argue and the land between here and Novac was clear, for the raiders were almost sure to be on the highway where there would be quarry and booty close to their camp, which was what I was counting on. I had me an idea of what to do, and damned if even I didn't think that I was fool for even thinking it.
"Alright, then. Come on with me. You kids get moving and don't stop for anything."
I ran into the camp with Angeline on my heels while those kids, tired and scared, made for that distant dinosaur. I was almost scared to see them go, but there was just no other way. We had to slow those legionnaires, or else none of us would get to the town. I led the way into the camp and went to one of the shanties where I'd seen some rusty ammo cans. I tried the lids and found them locked, but I broke the locks with my knife and found just what I wanted. Proximity mines, lots of them. I took several of them and handed some to Angeline, and together we spread them quickly around the camp in likely places where men would have to pass to come in. In addition to that, I quickly rigged my two grenades on trip wires in two of the shanties on the south side of the camp. In all it couldn't have taken more than five to eight minutes, and in mere seconds we were both in the rocks on the north of the camp where there was cover.
Minutes ticked slowly by as we laid on the rocks, still warm from the day's heat, our rifles trained on the camp and waiting for a target to present itself. There was no dust in the distance and the night was growing darker, almost full night. There was just the faintest hint of light on the peaks of the mountains. The sun would have to be almost down now, so the raiders would be coming back from whatever ambush they had set on the road. Those legionnaires that had been on us would be coming along soon and I was hoping that they did not know about this camp. Odds were that they would come up on it unawares, as we had, but if they had scouted the area at all then they would know it was here and try to skirt around it.
"That was really something back there, Ranger," Angeline whispered after a moment.
"The way you just took out your gun and opened the ball like that. I've never seen anyone get a gun out that fast before."
"I didn't think anything of it. I just drew and fired."
"And what about that last one? The one you shot in the belly?"
"He had my wife's ring."
I sensed a change in her mood then and I knew that I didn't have to explain anymore. She had been in the Wastes and she knew the life, so I could imagine that she knew my reasons well enough. She had said that her husband had died. Maybe she had been in a similar position at one time. Others might have questioned or condemned me for what I'd done, but I had the feeling that she would have done the exact same thing or maybe even had done the same thing.
"Here they come."
They were plain to see coming over the rise south of the camp. Their red uniforms and armor stood out from the desert and they came in a staggered column with their weapons up and at a steady run. They ran like marathoners over the flats, but at the sight of that camp they slowed up. Good, they didn't know about it beforehand. They came into the camp slowly and steadily, all of them looking around tentatively as they came. There were two Recruits and a Veteran with a Decanus in the lead, and as they came closer I held my sight on the Decanus' chest. I heard the safety of Angeline's Hunting Rifle click off beside me, and as they came closer and closer I began to slowly take up slack on the trigger. Just a little closer . . . just a little closer . . .
Something spooked the Recruit in the rear of the column after they had entered the camp and I knew that he would had tripped the first mine. He shouted something to the others and dove away from the shack he'd peeked into, just a second ahead of an explosion that gutted the hut completely and sent pieces of wood and sheet metal into the air. Our two rifles sounded as one and I saw the Decanus drop and one of the Recruits' uniform spurt blood and dust. Instantly I worked the lever on my repeater and fired three fast shots at the two men still standing. They turned and sprayed bullets at the rocks where we were hidden and I felt shards of lead and jackets sting my face and neck. Two fast strides and they were behind the first couple of shanties. I took aim and fired five shots just as fast as I could work the lever, all aimed low and going along a line at the bottom of the huts. I heard someone scream in pain and there were more return shots, but those bullets hit empty cover.
As soon as that last shot was fired, I was up and moving and thumbing shells into my repeater as I ran. Angeline was right behind me and I heard her slip her last stripper clip into her Hunting Rifle. There were more shots from the legionnaires, but I was listening for more as we ran. Sure enough, not even a minute after we left our cover there were two more explosions in quick succession, then a thunderous roar of shots from what had to be a half a dozen guns. I guess those raiders had come running at the sound of that first mine, which I'd been counting on, and they were none too happy to find company waiting in camp.
We ran for all we were worth for almost half a mile, then we slowed to a walk and took a big drink form our canteens. They were running low and mine sounded like it had only a couple of swallows left in it, but it wouldn't have to last much longer. There was still shooting back at the camp and the shots echoed like cannons off of the stoic hills and mountains, losing themselves in the high desert air after only a few seconds. We ran neck and neck towards that distant dinosaur that marked our destination, now only a mile or so distant, and before we knew it we were coming up the old broken highway and into the town of Novac. A resident hailed us from the broken-down gas station that did for a workshop and after my answer he lowered his gun and we passed unmolested.
"What the hell happened out there?", he asked when we came in, and for the first time I noticed that he was wearing a First Recon beret.
"Legion. We got 'em into a raider camp and those raiders didn't like it much."
"Legion? This far north?"
"Yeah. A big force landed at Cottonwood Cove and they've raided all the way to Nipton. We had some others coming ahead of us, a dozen kids, mostly girls, coming from the south. Did they make it?"
"Yeah, man. They came in a few minutes ago. I sent 'em down to the hotel. Doc Straus is looking in on them and Mrs. McBride is fixing up some Brahmin steaks for them. You guys look like you're beat."
"We are. We've been through it. By the way, I'm Ranger Dan Weathers of the Mojave Rangers and this is Angeline."
"Pleased to meet you. I'm Manny Vargas. Up there in Dinky is Boone, our night sniper, and up on the station is Ranger Andy, our constable."
I looked up on the roof of the old station and, sure enough, there was a grizzled old man in Combat Armor that I knew as Ranger Andy Walker. He was well known for his exploits in the Rangers and we'd been sorry to see him go. This town didn't know how fortunate they were to have him as a constable. And Vargas had said that there was a guy name Boone in the dinosaur. Boone . . . I'd heard that name before. Some said he was as good a shot or better than I was, but I had never made it into town to find out for sure. Just maybe . . .