I can't remember the last time I slept so soundly. Normally I'd have been kicking myself for letting myself sleep so deeply, but this time I just couldn't help it. Jeannie May Crawford set me up with a room, Angeline as well, and the children were put up either in one of the bungalows or at the McBride house. It was the first time in months that I'd seen a real bed, let alone one as big as that one. The room they gave me was just above the office at the head of the stairs to the second floor and it was well furnished, having a table and chairs, full chest of drawers with a safe on the inside, and even a couple of dressers that had a few odds and ends of loose or forgotten clothing that had been left by previous renters. There was even a full bathroom complete with a sink - with running water! Hell, they even put a teddy bear on the bed for good measure.
I left Angeline a few minutes after we got into town. We exchanged a few words with Manny Vargas and Ranger Andy, but the both of us were dead-beat tired and needed our rest. Jeannie May offered us a change of clothes and the chance to have our own washed, and we both eagerly took her up on it. My own clothes were dirty and soiled and stank of stale sweat and, though I hated to admit it, Angeline's were little better. I went straight to the room, took one look at that bed, and in a matter of minutes I was fast sound asleep.
When I awoke the sun was full up and the light of it was coming in through the drapes. It had been years since I'd slept so late, but I figured that I'd earned it. The sparse sleep I'd had in the past few days and the stress between catnaps had just taken it out of me. My every muscle had been sore and stiff from the exertion, but when the morning came I was feeling loose and refreshed. I gave my guns a good cleaning, which they sorely needed, oiled the actions and reloaded the empty chambers and magazine tube, then went to the bathroom to look myself over. The image I saw in the mirror was one that I didn't quite like. My hair was long and shaggy, hanging almost to my shoulders, and there was a stubble of beard on my face that was quickly growing into a full-blown beard. I hated stubble and had been scratching at it for a couple of days now, but there had been no chance to stop and shave. My face and body were dirty my beard had picked up some trail dust along the way.
No one had ever called me a particularly handsome man, although there had been a few women here and there that passed me a second glance. I hadn't ever noticed much. Jenny was the only woman for me. Looking at myself in that cracked old mirror, all the hard years of living I'd done seemed to be starting back at me. I stood six foot, four inches in my socks and was mighty thick through the shoulders and arms while still lean and narrow at the hips. My arms and legs both were powerfully muscled, the result of years of hard work and harder fighting, and my body bore the scars of my hard years as well. A dark slash showed across my left bicep, the result of a Legion machete catching me on the arm, and on the right side of stomach was the dark spot of an old bullet wound. Another bullet wound was on my left calf, gotten at Bitter Springs from a Great Khans sharpshooter, and a nick in my right ear remained from a knife fight with a Viper.
All in all, it wasn't much that could be said for what would soon be twenty-two years of living. Everything that would have been mine for the future had been back there at the family farm, along with the woman who had been my wife and would have been the mother of my children. Jenny and I had talked about having kids a time or two and I had really been looking forward to having a son that I could pass on my skills to. Someone that I could teach things like tracking, shooting, how to find water in the desert, which plants were best to eat and which were good for medicines, and such like. A daughter would have been a blessing as well, although I had less to teach a girl than to a son. Now all that was gone. My family was gone, my Jenny was gone, all that I had was gone.
I ran a bath into the old tub, loving the sound of the water running into it. The heat of the water was relaxing, refreshing, invigorating. The feel of the hot water was like something out of Heaven and I felt as if I could soak in that tub for a week. It was the first real bath I'd had for a month or more, getting by with just bathing in the river from time to time. I didn't let my guard down though, even here, and on a stool beside the tub sat my .357 in its holster. It felt wonderful to be clean and the hot water soothed my aching muscles, and when I got out of the tub and dried myself I decided that I had been carrying around that stubble long enough. There was some lather and a brush in the medicine cabinet and once I was lathered up I took out my Bowie, tested the edge, and began to shave. Once I was finished shaving, I cut into that shaggy hair. Within a half an hour or so, I was looking like a proper Ranger again.
A light rap on the door caught my ear and instantly my gun was in my hand, hammer cocked and my finger resting gently on the trigger. I stepped gingerly to the door and stood to one side, and when I asked who was there no one answered. I asked again, still no answer, so I turned the knob carefully and opened the door ever so slightly. No one was there, but my clothes were on the balcony in a neatly folded bundle. Feeling the fool, I eased down the hammer of my sixgun and scooped those clothes up. They felt clean and crisp when I put them on, almost as if they were brand new again. The white shirt had been turned almost yellow by sun and sand, the brown leather vest they gave me was faded, and the brown jeans I wore had faded to an almost tan color. My boots were down at heel, but they had a lot of country yet to cover.
Once I was clothed and clean, I remembered the rumble that my stomach had been making since last night. I could smell food cooking downstairs in the makeshift restaurant and right about then my belly was begging for some attention. I put on my hat and sunglasses, slung my gunbelt about my hips, and checked the loads in my pistol. It was fully loaded and the chambers made pretty little clicks when I spun the chamber and tested the action. It was a ritual I followed religiously every morning, and when I had dropped the gun back into its holster I felt ready to face the day. I thought about taking my rifle along as well, but thought better of it and left it locked in one of the dressers.
The morning sun was warm and bright when I stepped outside. The town of Novac was in full swing and I liked the look and sound of the place. The courtyard of the hotel was the heart of the town, with hotel forming one side of a defensive square with a tall fence and junk wall made of car hulks and old rubble forming the other three. A gate and a strong lock secured access to the yard and Dinky, the dinosaur tower, offered a handy sniper's nest as well as housing the local store. A man named Cliff Briscoe ran the store, a man known locally as a good man and a fine merchant. Jeannie May Crawford had her own reputation as a fair woman and a pleasant one, but it was Boone that I was curious to meet. Manny Vargas had said that Boone was the night-shift sniper, so he was probably off duty now. Maybe I would catch him at breakfast.
I didn't have to look hard to find the restaurant, if you could call it that. The smell of meat cooking and coffee boiling wafted through the air and caught my nose immediately. I had always had a good nose and had always been a good feeder, so when I smelled good food cooking I just naturally drifted towards it. It was on the corner of the hotel just down from the office and when I came in I saw Mrs. McBride clattering around in the kitchen and a big pot of coffee on the counter next to a stack of cups. I took one of the cups and filled it to the brim before taking a seat in the corner. The coffee was hot, dark, and strong enough to float a paperweight. Whatever else could be said about that McBride woman, she knew to make a man's coffee. She was the wife of a Brahmin rancher and so I suppose she was used to making good food and strong coffee for a strong man. The thought had scarcely left my mind before the bell over the door chimed and in walked old Dusty McBride, his dusty overalls and worn-out hat marking him as a rancher.
I motioned him over to my table after he'd gotten his coffee and kissed his wife and he came over with a smile. I think he knew me as a Brahmin boy myself and once the introductions had been made we sat and talked of the town, the desert around the place, range conditions, and the condition of his herd. He had about a dozen head or so, he said, and most of them were kept to supply the restaurant and the town with meat. he'd killed off most of the predators in the area, so his herd was doing well and was multiplying well.
He went on to tell me that his wife had made a fine meal for the kids the night before and put up some of them for the night. He said that the kids were coming in for lunch and that Daisy Whitman and one of the local men planned to take them up to the Old Mormon Fort to live with the Followers of the Apocalypse for the time being. That would be a good place for them. Those kids had been through the ringer and seen and done things that no child should, but I got the feeling that they would come out of it alright. They had held up well to the hard trip over the desert and had never once complained, not even when we laid out poor Reese's body, and they were all young and strong. They would be all right.
The sun was getting high in the sky outside and soon the people of the town started to come in from their work to get their midday meal. I sat in the corner and watched them come in over Dusty's shoulder, sipping my coffee and talking about the price of beef and the latest gossip. They were the same kind that was slowly, but surely, settling the Mojave and changing it for the better. Two centuries of desolation had all but reclaimed this place since the Old World had burned itself out and turned it into a savage land where only the strong survived. These people were the sort that brought with them the farms, ranches, towns, and businesses that would someday make the Mojave into a new California.
New Vegas was the largest unaffiliated city in the Mojave and the NCR was trying desperately to absorb it, even though the mysterious Mr. House was silently fighting them off with sweet promises and ever-delayed plans. House had carved out something of his own little empire out here in the desert over the last two hundred years, untouched by the nukes and the wars that had ravaged the Mojave and destroyed the Old World, but the other towns and villages out here like Novac, Nipton, Goodsprings, Primm, and all the others were only now being resettled by brave souls like Dusty McBride, Manny Vargas, Reese and his parents, Angeline . . .
The door opened again and I looked up to see a tall man in a red First Recon beret come walking in, then a second later he was followed by one of the prettiest little brunettes that I had ever seen. She was pert and pretty, although something about her demeanor told me that she would rather be anywhere else than here. She was pretty as could be, and that pregnancy glow was all over her even though that maternity dress she wore didn't fully conceal her growing belly. Boone was right beside her and I could see instantly that he was a soldier. His manner was entirely military; the straight posture, the regimented mode of dress, the beret that he wore, and the way that his face hardened whenever he wasn't looking at his wife. She took his arm while they ordered their meal and his face instantly lit up into a crooked smile. This was a hard man, no doubt about it, but that woman and her bairn were his pride and joy and his whole world. I knew the feeling.
They looked my way when Mrs. McBride pointed me out and once they had made their order they came toward my table as well. Dusty to look them over and stood up to welcome them as they approached. He exchanged hellos with Boone and his wife, shook hands, then turned and started to introduce me but I stood up and offered my hand before he could finish.
"Dan Weathers, pleased to meet you."
"Craig Boone, likewise. This is my wife, Carla, and down here," he put his hand on her belly, which she didn't seem to particularly like, "is little Carson or little Carla."
"Honey," she said as she half-slapped his hand away from her belly, "we said we wouldn't name her that."
I could see that she was anxious, but I couldn't help but like her. She was a strong woman and a clever one, I could see that, but she was here in this town far away from all that she had known before. She was a New Vegas type all right. It was written all over her. The hair, the way she carried herself, the sassy way that she all but slapped her husband's hand away. All of it told me that she was from the big city and wished she was still there. But she was in love with Boone and she wanted to be near him, I could tell by the look in her eye. Jenny had had that same look in her eye when she looked at me.
"I heard you were the sniper here in town. That true?"
"I'm one of them. I work the night shift and Manny covers the day shift. We've been here since we left First Recon a couple years ago."
"First Recon? I hear that's a tough outfit. A friend of mine was with you at Hoover Dam. Do you know a Ranger Clyde Gibson?"
"I've heard of him but I don't think I've ever met him. There were a lot of us at Hoover Dam and we didn't have much time to get acquainted afterwards. Recon didn't hang around long after the battle."
"I heard you were with them against the Khans. That was supposed to be a hell of a fight I it's own right from what I've heard."
Immediately I knew I had misspoken. A change came over his face that I recognized from old soldiers I'd known, the look of a man that was thinking of a time in his life that he wished he could erase. Nobody liked to talk about Bitter Springs and what happened there, least of all those that had been there, and I could see that he was one of those that wished it had never even happened. I'd known a Ranger that had helped track the Great Khans to that camp and tried to tell the idiots in charge that it was an actual village, not a raider camp as they had thought, but they hadn't listened. What happened after the battle was nothing less than unspeakable.
"From what else I've heard," I said in an attempt to change the subject, "you're supposed to be quite a shot with a rifle. I'm pretty good myself. You think maybe we could have a little competition sometime? Just a friendly competition, between friends?"
Another look came into his eye then that I also recognized. I had made it sound as polite as possible, but he knew that I had challenged him to a shooting contest. Those First Recon boys prided themselves on their marksmanship and some even went so far as to call them the best shots in the Mojave, some even in all of Nevada. Any man that challenged them to any kind of a shooting match would have to be crazy or confident in his own ability. I saw him studying me for a second, trying to decide whether I was the crazy kind or the confident kind. There was the faintest hint of a smile after a second or two and I think that he really wanted to go out and pop off a few rounds right then and there, if his wife hadn't been there. Right then she was giving him a look that would curl a man's hair.
"Maybe some other time," he replied, "if you're up for it."
"I'll be just over in Nelson. We've got some trouble with the Legion, but it should be sorted out before long. Once it's done, I'll be available any time you feel like having a match. Of course, as I said, it'll be just a friendly match between friends."
"Of course, between friends."
He offered his hand then and I took it, and this time I felt him testing my grip. He was a powerfully built man and his shirt and sleeves bulged with thick muscles that I was sure had been put to good use a time or two. As I said, I'm a pretty strong man myself so when he tested my grip I just tightened my fist and tested his right back. We stood there for a moment, both of us putting our considerable strength into our little private battle. Our muscles strained and tightened under shirt sleeves and our faces soon grew red from the effort. His wife saw what was going on but didn't say a thing, just standing there with her arms crossed and her head shaking from side to side. A minute passed by slowly and neither of us felt the other give at all. Finally we each let go, smiles on our strained faces, and shared a laugh.
"Friends, indeed," he said, and then he took his wife's hand and they went to a booth in the other corner. All that I had heard of him was true. He was a tough man and a strong one, but a good one as well despite his past. I decided that I liked Craig Boone and I had a suspicion that he had the same thought about me. Out here respect was a precious commodity that a man had to earn from others, and I had just earned his and he had earned mine.
Dusty and I talked on for a few more minutes, the waitress coming over to fill our cups and to take my order after a few more minutes. The room was filling up now and there was a feeling of peace about the place that I liked. I liked the sound of people talking, of dished clinking in the kitchen, of the gossip and stories being shared between farmers, scavengers, ranchers, and the like. For years I'd grown used to the rough talk and rougher ways of soldiers and Rangers back in the camps and bases along the river. Always we were talking about the enemy, about the places we had been, the battles we'd fought, the girls we'd known or left behind, and of friends that we'd known or lost. There was a camaraderie there, a feeling that a man belonged to something, but here it was something different.
All my life I'd imagined myself living in a place like this. Some little desert town where a man could sit on his porch and watch his Brahmin or Bighorners graze on the bunch grass, watch his wife hanging out the wash to dry or work in the garden or go about her chores, watch his sons grow tall and his daughters grow into fine young women. Just a few miles down the road was a town where all kinds of hell was set to break loose in just a few days, if not sooner, but here it was quiet, still, peaceful. The war and its horrors felt far away here. Indeed it seemed like only the snipers and their constant vigil kept anyone thinking of the war at all. No one was fooled, though, that much I could see. Looking at the men and women that came in to get their meals I could see that they were all fighting men. Some of them had visible scars from battles past while others had the same cool yet controlled demeanor that Boone had. No doubt some of them had been in the Army, but still more would have seen just as much action as any soldier by simply living and surviving out here in the Wastes.
The pretty waitress, a pert little blonde that couldn't have been older than fifteen but was trying to act much older, came with our food and both Dusty and I ceased talking and went to eating. I've always been a good hand at the feed table and I'd tasted some mighty fine cooking in my time, but one bite of that steak made me forget all that I've ever eaten before. Mrs. McBride was by far the best cook that I'd ever seen. The steak was tender and juicy, cooked to perfection, as were the potatoes and the Xander Root that came with it. I took my time eating, savoring every bite as only a man that has known real hunger could. The little food I'd had for the past few days hadn't really hit the spot.
People like to think that a truly hungry man always wolfs down his food all at once. That just isn't so. A man that has known real, body-changing hunger will almost always peck at his food with small, deliberate bites, savoring every bite and enjoying the flavor of every bit of the food that he can. A hungry man never knows when or what he'll get to eat next, so he enjoys what he gets when he can get it. I've been living on Army rations and whatever I could get from the land for the last few years and I'd often had to go hungry, so I'm a firm believer in the old soldier's saying, "Eat when there's food, sleep when there's time."
I finished the meal and wiped my mouth with the rag that did for a napkin, and before I could offer my appreciation to the cook Mrs. McBride herself came over to the table with an apple pie that had been cut into four quarter pieces. One of these she forked out of the pan and put on her husband's plate, then another she put onto my own. The pie was hot and steaming and I could smell the sweet scent of the sugar and cinnamon. It had been years since I'd even seen an apple pie, or apples for that matter, so I took my time with that big piece and before I knew it I was forking into a second.
"You know, Dusty," Mrs. McBride said, "I think I'd rather buy this clothes than have to feed him all the time. Give him enough time and he'd eat us out of house and home."
"I don't mean to be a glutton, ma'am. Having fine cookin' like this set out before me has that effect on me. You're just about the best cook that I've ever had the pleasure of coming across and I just can't say no to good food."
"You're welcome to it, Ranger. I like to see a hungry man eat. It makes a woman feel like she's made a man happy after a hard day's work."
"My day's work is just about to start, ma'am. I let myself sleep in and I've still got to be on my way to Nelson. There's trouble coming and I need to be there when it hits."
"What kind of trouble?"
I had never been able to lie to most people, let alone women, so I laid it out for her and her husband. I told them about the large force at Cottonwood Cove, the attack on Searchlight, and ,with what little information I had from Angeline and the kids, of the massacre at Nipton. To her credit, she didn't panic. I expected Dusty to take it the way he did, with neither surprise nor panic. He had lived out here long enough to know that terrible things were bound to happen from time to time. War or no war, men would always find a way to kill each other on a grand scale and if they didn't then the land would do it for them. His wife was a little shocked when I told her of the large army at Cottonwood, but surprisingly she didn't seem to be so surprised about the attack on Nipton. More than likely she had gotten most of the details of that from the kids. I had not heard of them yet, but I knew they were safe as long as she had them.
I finished my pie and wiped my mouth, feeling properly stuffed, and I reached into my pocket for some bottle caps for the meal. Mrs. McBride started to protest, but I insisted and I left her a few caps and a couple extra for the pie and a tip. I understood that she didn't want to charge me after what I'd done for those youngsters, but I've always paid my own way. In this world a man has to stand on his own two feet and not get to depending on others for what he needs. All my life I've never had much and I've never asked anything of anyone except for the chance to earn what I can from hard work and sweat.
The sun was high in the sky when I left the restaurant. It was hot and there were heat waves dancing in the distance, down the street a dust devil danced across the ruined asphalt of the old highway before vanishing into nothing, and on the west side of town I could hear the McBrides' Brahmin braying. Some coyote or other critter was probably getting too close for comfort. The western mountains looked on fire as the lowering sun cast its glow upon them, while to the east the sheer wall of the escarpment was draped in a growing shadow. It was a solid wall of rock that towered several hundred feet, most of it sheer, and in the distance I could see the one small gap where the road led through the rock wall and into Nelson. Beyond Nelson would be the Colorado, then the open desert and mountains, and somewhere to the southeast were more a couple hundred legionnaires preparing for war.
It was just past noontime now. If I was to make Nelson before sundown I'd have to get packed up and on the road within the next hour. Something about this place held me here, something that I liked, or missed, and as I rolled a smoke and struck the match I just couldn't help but love the peacefulness of this quiet little town on the ass-end of nowhere. I stood and smoked down my cigarette, loving the full aroma of the wild tobacco, and just listened to the wind howling and the Brahmin braying.
Finally I forced myself to move and so crushed out my cigarette, climbed the stairs to my room, and gathered my gear. It wasn't much to gather. Jeannie May had given me some supplies and I packed those into my satchel, along with what was left of the ammo I'd brought from Echo Station, my whetstone, the few Stimpaks I still had, and the copy of the Scriptures I'd taken from my family's ruined house. I checked my rifle and revolvers, finding them all loaded, then with that spare gun tucked behind my gunbelt I reached for the rifle and satchel on the bed. The door opened and filled the shadowed room with bright sunlight and my hand dropped instinctively toward my gun when I saw the form in the doorway. A second look over a shielding hand made me forget about the gun and just about everything else. The figure in the doorway was Angeline, and she was beautiful.
She had bathed with some kind of cactus flowers (I could smell them plain as day) and she was wearing a green-and-white checkered sundress that hugged her curves a little too well. Her red hair was clean and wavy as it fell down over one shoulder, and for the first time I saw that her face, now free of grime and sweat, was covered in freckles. She looked far different from the hardy woman I'd crossed the desert with, although the Hunting Rifle leaning against the jamb told me that she hadn't washed away all of her sense. She stepped in and slid the door closed behind her. When she looked at me something, I don't know what, made her smile. Maybe it was the stupefied look on my face or the way my eyes were glued to her curves and her freckles, or maybe it was just the way my hand started down for my gun at first. Whatever made her do it, I was glad for it. She had one of the loveliest smiles I ever did see.
"So you're leaving?", she said after composing herself a little.
"I have to. They'll be needing me back at Nelson when the attack comes."
"From the Legion? Do you think the NCR can hold out against an army like that?"
"I don't know, but we'll give 'em hell trying."
"I know you will. You most of all."
"How are the kids? I haven't seen them around and I'm starting to wonder."
"They're in the bungalows. Mr. and Mrs. McBride have the youngest ones and the girl who was shot. Ranger Andy said that he and some of the town men are going to take them to the Old Mormon Fort in New Vegas tomorrow or the next day. He said the Followers will take them back west somewhere, or back to their families."
"That's good. The Followers will take good care of them. They've earned a trip back to the civilized world after what they've been through. I wish them luck."
"Do you want to say goodbye to them before you go?"
"Nah. They've seen enough of me. Seeing me will just bring back bad memories."
"And what about me?"
That last part almost made me jump. It wasn't so much what she said, but more the way she said it. Up until now she hadn't been in my mind all that much. She was just That Pretty Girl from Nipton who could and would use a rifle. Of course, she hadn't looked like this until just now and my mind had been mostly preoccupied with watching out for danger, preparing for the next move, and mourning for Jenny and my folks. I hadn't shed a tear since seeing my family's bodies back there at the farm, and I don't think I will ever shed any more. That may sound strange to some, but out here it was perfectly normal. Death was a constant companion out in the Wastes and people died every day, both those that a man cared about and those that he didn't, and mourning was generally a luxury that one couldn't afford. The best thing to do with death was to just pack up and move on from it. My family was gone, my Jenny was gone, and none of them would want me to just sit around and mope about it. Then again, they probably wouldn't like what I had in mind for any Legion that crossed my path, either.
I had no business courting or even thinking about women so soon after my Jenny was gone, although as I said death was something one just coped with and moved on from, but I had to have some time to sort things out, and to get some payback. She stood there looking at me with those baby blue eyes of hers, asking me a hundred silent questions for which I could offer no answers. And there I was, a tall, lean man of the desert loaded down with steel and the few supplies that I could carry in my satchel.
I couldn't think of anything else to do, so I just reached over and picked up my repeater from the bed, adjusted the strap on my satchel, and started for the door. She didn't move, and I didn't want her to, and I walked right up to her and stared down into those baby blues. She was several inches shorter then me and she had to look up at me, but she didn't seem to mind.
"I was planning on it," I said, "but I didn't think I should."
"Because saying goodbye to someone usually means that you don't plan to see that person again, and I would very much like to see you again, ma'am."
"Angeline, please. Call me Angeline."
Her face flushed when I said her name, coloring the tanned skin between those cute little freckles. She was a beautiful woman, of that there was no doubt. I had seen her in the desert and I had seen her in action, but I had never thought that I would see her like this.
"I still don't know your name, Ranger."
"You heard me give it to Manny Vargas last night."
"Yes, but you didn't give it to me. I want to know what to call you."
"It's Daniel, Daniel Weathers. Most folks call me Dan."
"Okay then, Dan. I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you, too."
A lock of hair fell from her brow and over one eye, and I couldn't resist the urge to move it away with my finger. Her skin was soft and warm and I saw her blush even more once I'd moved the hair away. I got the feeling that she wanted to kiss me, and truth be known I wanted to kiss her too, but I know I shouldn't. I just kept looking down into those blue eyes and saw the need that was there, the want, and it was all I could do to hold back the urge to take her in my arms and plant one on her. I forced myself to step away and go to the door, pushing it open and into the hot sunlight again. She came out after me and followed me down to the office, where I dropped my key into the drop box, and then to the base of the dinosaur. There was a cool breeze that stirred the dust and her hair as she looked at me and for a moment I thought about turning back into the hotel.
"Well, I gotta be going. You take care of yourself. This is a good place here. You and those kids are gonna do alright. You tell Manny and Boone to keep a good eye on the road. If things go sour at Nelson, they'll be coming this way in a hurry. You keep that rifle handy."
"I will. You look out for yourself, Daniel Weathers."
"I will. I'll be seeing you around, Angeline."
"I hope so. Sooner rather than later."
I turned and started down the road then, not wanting to drag it out any more than I had to. It was hard to turn away from her, but I knew I had to. I started down that old cracked pavement at a fast walk, confident that no one would come out at me while I was under the watchful eye of Manny Vargas up in the tower. I knew he was there and I was pretty sure that old Ranger Andy would probably be around somewhere, although no one would know it until he wanted them to, so I walked across the old bridge in relative safety. I didn't think that the Legion, what was left of them, would be anywhere around after the fight back there at the raider camp and on the flats, but I was pretty sure that they might have a man out on some hill or cliff watching the road. That raiding party would still be somewhere around and they would be looking for targets where they could find them. Those raiders would probably have suffered from that fight at their camp, but I doubted that they would have come out on the short end.
The accuracy of the two snipers was put into stark reality when I passed the bridge and went around the rusted hulk of a car that had been there for the last two centuries and went on down the road, where I found the carcass of a raider wearing a metal helmet. He'd been there for a while, judging by the state of his body, but the bullet hole in his helmet told me that he hadn't suffered at the moment of death. The hole was right in the middle of the forehead and would've hit him right between the eyes. Looking back at the dinosaur, I saw that the shot had to have been taken from at least eight hundred yards away and at a slightly downward angle. That was a shot that few men would attempt and even fewer could pull off. Then again, not that many men were First Recon Sharpshooters.
I went down the road for about two miles before I passed through the canyon and went up off the plain, following the road down between the high, dark, stoic rock walls of the mountains. It was hot and there was no breeze in the canyon, but it was a dry heat and for once I was well rested and feeling fresh. I went on at a good pace and found myself eating up the miles one after the other as if they were nothing. I topped out on the ridge above Nelson and saw the newly fortified outpost which acted as a guard post on the road, manned by a half dozen troopers and one big man in Ranger combat armor that I instantly recognized as Ranger Art Milo. Milo was a big man, strong as a bull Bighorner and as tough as they come, and with his dark skin and that big shaggy beard of his he was a hard man to miss. A lot of us Rangers admired that Cowboy Repeater he was so proud of, the one that he called Carmine, that he had done up as a sort of trophy as well as a damn fine weapon. He had special sights on it, a custom action, and in the stock he'd embedded four or five gold Legion denarii that he'd taken off of dead officers. He had that rifle in his hands as I came down the road, careful to keep my hand away from my holster and carrying my own rifle by the action and in my left hand, and when the troopers raised their guns toward me he ordered them to stand down.
"Weathers," he said as he offered me his hand, "glad you made it. I heard you had yourself a nice little walk."
I took his hand felt his iron grip as I shook it, then replied, "True enough. Had a nice little picnic by the cave, too. We even had a few steaks and some lemonade. You'd have loved it."
"Gibson's gonna be glad to see ya. He's been at the comms tent every day since they got back waiting for news. We heard from Charlie that you'd called in and that Nipton and Searchlight were hit. That true?"
"Yeah. Searchlight's an irradiated cloud and I picked up some youngsters out of Nipton. They said the Legion razed it to the ground and killed everybody. They won't be going anywhere else, though."
The troopers gathered around us now didn't really get that last part, but Milo gave me one of his sly grins and I knew he understood. Any Ranger that had been out here for any length of time had seen action of one kind or another. We'd all taken scalps and suffered wounds and we all knew the score. I looked at those troopers and I could see that they just didn't get it. All of them were fresh-faced new recruits, probably on their first active assignment, and they all had that look of fear that one sees from the untested. Some of them were eager, some of them were scared of failing, but they all had one thing in common; they were afraid.
Back in California there were all kinds of stories going around about the Legion and what they did to prisoners and enemies. People in the cities were starting to think of the Legion as bogeymen that stole kids in the night or as walking, talking devils that just kept coming no matter what you threw at them. All of that was bullshit. Fearsome as they might be, a legionnaire was a man like any other. He might be big, he might be tough, he might be a fanatical maniac, but if you put a bullet into him he would go down like any man would. These men, boys more likely, would see that soon enough, if they lived.
Walking down the hill into Nelson felt a little like coming home. I was glad to be back in the town, back among friends and in friendly territory. With Ma and the family and the farm gone, the Rangers were all the family that I really had left. I had no right to expect anything of that red-haired woman back in Novac. I was just a tall, strong, raw-boned man of the desert with nothing more than a couple of guns and the clothes on my back to my name and a future filled with blood and dying, probably my own, and she deserved better than anything I could give her. I tried not to think about her. Trouble was coming in a horde and I had to be ready for it when it came. I had no business thinking about women at a time like this.
One look around town and I could see that they had been busy while I was gone. There were at least twice as many troops in town as there had been, with maybe a hundred men in all in town now, and the defenses had been strengthened. The fence on the east side was now reinforced with a sandbag wall and rough tower just over the gate, while the lower line of defense on the ridge below town was an almost solid line of breastworks with rifle pits dug behind sandbag walls with firing slots left between the bags. The three towers all had men in them and I could see that one of them even had a Light Machine Gun mounted on a swivel. Soldiers were milling around town as I walked through the streets to the sutler's store, carrying supplies, ammo, and other materiel from one place to another and to the men stationed along the walls. Snipers were in the towers at the edge of town and there were men on the lower walls at all hours. As I came down the hill I saw a squad of troopers and a Brahmin-pulled wagon full of supplies moving down the path that led to Tehatticup Mine. My guess was that they had some kind of post or lookout there to watch the river and the open desert approaches.
The sutler's store was full to capacity when I walked through the propped-open door. Every table and chair was filled with troopers, either drinking coffee or having a meal, but I saw the men I was looking for in the far corner at their usual table. Gibson was hard to miss with that old black hat he wore with the turquoise band, and Cooper had his scoped rifle leaning against the wall beside him. Grey and Bronson were there, too, digging into a pot of meat and beans, and they all saw me coming through the door at the same time.
"Well, I'll be damned," Gibson said as I came closer, "I was hopin' you'd make it back. If I have to put up with these clowns alone for much longer, I'd shoot the lot of 'em."
"Nobody would blame you if you did."
They were all happy to see me, although they limited themselves to simple nods and atta-boys when I sat down and poured myself a cup. The coffee was hot and stronger than any I'd had in days, and it tasted good. They asked me about the last few days and if the rumors about Searchlight and Nipton were true. I laid it out for them right then and there, all of it, without holding anything back. I told them about the ghouls and the radiation bomb in Searchlight, about the massacre of Wolfhorn Ranch, and about Angeline and the kids from Nipton and our flight across the Mojave with the Legion on our heels. Apparently word travels fast in the Wastes, for they had already heard about that last part. They could hardly believe it, but they knew that it had to be true. No communication had come from Searchlight since we'd left Station Echo and there was no traffic coming east out of Nipton. Radios couldn't penetrate the radiation cloud, so there was no way to get word of the massacres out aside from sending runners.
Gibson's first orders to me were to get some rest, but it just wasn't in me to lay about when there was work to be done. There were all kinds of preparations to make before the Legion hit us hard and I couldn't bring myself to rest while the others did the work. I stood my turn on night watch and camped in one of my usual spots near the cliff for the night, ever alert for danger, and at first light I was up and working. All day we labored hard and long, troopers and Rangers both, preparing for the attack that we all now knew would come. That raiding party had cut off the comms and roads to the west and no new forces had been sent that way, according to the Rangers at Station Echo, so their only logical target would have to be here.
Nelson had only been around for about a month or so, ever since the Battle of the Arizona Spillway had forced NCR troops off the east side of the Colorado and forced them to seek out a new defensible position on the river. Nelson was one of the few places where a force of any size could cross the river and one of even fewer places where a sustainable post could be built. The Legion had been on the offensive on the east side of the river and now were at our doorstep, but as always the NCR couldn't be bothered to secure a post other than the Dam. Nelson had been an afterthought for most of its brief history, and now we were paying the price for that.
We worked hard at piling up new sandbag walls, fortifying the existing ones with scrap iron and what native stone we could pile up, and stockpiling ammunition at crucial points of defense. At least thirty men were busy loading rifle magazines and filling bandoleers for the men with repeaters, placing them in cases to be distributed along the front line or handing them out to the troops. I filled the empty loops on my belt and the spare that I had been using as a bandoleer, took the few empty casings I'd collected along the way and reloaded them at the camp munitions bench, disassembled and cleaned all my guns, and put a fresh edge on my Bowie knife before heading out for the day's work.
Breakfast was a fast piece of work. Perry, the sutler and cook, was a good hand at the stove but even he had a hard time keeping up with a hundred hungry troopers. It was a fast meal of fried Mole Rat and flap jacks washed down with coffee, and then I was out on the lower ridge with the building crews. All my life I've had little else but sweat and hard work, and the years had blessed me with what many called exceptional strength. I was just a tall, lanky boy from the mountains, but my shoulders and arms were packed with powerful muscles earned in the fields and mines I'd worked since childhood. Those years had also blessed me with a talent for using a pick and shovel, and I put those to use now quarrying out stone for use on the wall out of the cliffs and filling sandbags with loose sand from along the riverbank.
In addition to our new fortifications, the new troopers started to lay out a few new lines of defense as well. While we worked at the walls, teams of engineers started laying mines and traps at regular intervals along he eastern approaches to the town and cutting brush and smoothing out soil for a better field of fire. Trip mines were buried and set in waves every twenty yards or so, as well as bear traps where they could be hidden by the brush. It would have been a good plan, if they had brought enough mines to do the job adequately. They should have had several hundred of the mines, but the new troops had only brought a few dozen of them. They built rifle pits along the walls and reinforced the few towers with scrap metal and sheets of iron and aluminum. It was hard work, but it was too little too late. Only the eastern side of town had been fortified and the new lookout post at Tehatticup Mine was mainly dependent on the natural defenses of the mine.
News came in over the radio from Station Echo, and it wasn't good. Legion troops were out in force, attacking prospectors and civilians all along the river, and they were already laying siege to the station. Reinforcements had been requested, but so far there just weren't any to send until fresh troops could come east from California. Every day they reported casualties, most of them civilians who had fled to the station for protection, and they were running low on ammo. The civilian radio stations were all abuzz about the sudden activity at Nelson. All day long we listened to the radio that we set up to pass the time, hearing about the latest attack on Camp McCarran by the Fiends or the latest raid on some caravan by raider gangs. It seemed like all the news that was going around was bad. All reports from Echo and from the few scouts that were out in the field reported no significant movement at the Cove, though, and that was always welcome news.
We worked from dawn until dusk, all of us doing our part. There were men at Tehatticup watching the river and laying what fortifications they could, snipers on the hills at along the walls of the town to cover us as we worked, and all along the river there were scouts and foragers on duty. I liked the work personally, to be active and working at something definite. And it also gave me a chance to think. Long hours of hunting, working, or marching often give a man the chance to contemplate things, and I swung that pick and fill those sandbags I did me some thinking. I thought about the revenge that I'd sworn to carry out and what a pleasure it would to get a chance at the red-clad devils that were sure to come our way soon, about what would happen if this place fell, but most of all I thought about that red-haired woman back there in Novac.
I had no right to think of her that way, but more and more often I found her in my thoughts. She was a beautiful woman, all right, and she was tough, but there was little I had to offer her and it was too soon after my Jenny's death to be thinking of other women. Jenny had been a fine woman, one of the best I'd ever known, but now she was gone and I had to let her go. Grieving does little good for a man. I'd known men who'd lost wives and loved ones and spent years brooding over it, letting grief consume them to the point that life no longer mattered to them, and I had no intention of becoming one of them. I had a thirst for vengeance in my heart for what the Legion had done to me and mine, but I didn't want it to take over my life. Revenge is a cold supper and too much of it makes a man lose himself.
That night I went to bed tired and sore. We'd done a lot of work and made a lot of progress, but it was still little enough for what we needed. More defenses would have to be built on the perimeter of the town, more towers put up, and we'd need more men if we were to defend this place. We had a hundred men here, but they were green troops for the most part and many of them had just barely finished training. The men that would be coming here would be hardened veterans fresh out of a successful campaign in the south, all full of piss and vinegar and ready to give Caesar another victory, and they outnumbered us two to one.
Dawn came too soon, as it always does, and before the sun was clear of the eastern mountains I was up and at the breakfast table. It was a little different today, with fresh Bighorner meat replacing the Mole Rat fryback. The meat was rich and delicious, and the coffee was good for my tired bones. Today promised more work and more urgency, but I welcomed it. Every hour I spent working was another hour I felt useful. The others were doing their part as well, with Gibson and Grey helping to scout the river and bring in fresh meat and Cooper and Bronson on the hills around town on lookout. Both Cooper and Bronson were good snipers and mostly they switched off the duty while we were hunting or on patrol, but now both of them were sporting Hunting Rifles and nestled up in the rocks where no one would ever find them. I sat beside them at our usual table now, my rifle leaning against the wall beside me.
We were all finishing up our meal and I was reaching for the pot when a man ran into the sutler's, panting from a fast ran and going for the center of the room. He was dressed in overalls that were dirty from the work he'd been doing and I recognized him as one of the civilian workers that had come in to help with the fortifications and to lend a hand in the defense, a good man and a solid one. He hadn't seemed to me to be the kind of man that would get excited about little things, so when I saw him running in like that it set my mind to wondering.
He ran to the center of the room and grabbed the shoulder of the captain that was eating there with some lieutenants and a corporal, all of them new arrivals that I didn't know. I saw the look on that man's face when he heard what the runner had to say. I couldn't hear him over the noise of the crowd, but I could tell that it wasn't good. He shouted something to the other men at the table and they immediately got to their feet and grabbed for their rifles. The captain jumped to his feet and whistled to get the attention of the crowd, who immediately quieted down and looked his way.
"Stand to, men," he shouted as loud as he could, "news just came in from Station Echo. The Legion is on the move and they're coming our way! Everyone to your posts, now!"
There was no wasted movement. My hand instantly dropped to my rifle and my hat. All of us left the table at the same time and we were all moving ahead of the frenzied mass of young soldiers grabbing for their weapons and gear. Gibson, Grey, and I all ran for the lower level of defense while Cooper and Bronson each went to a tower on the edge of the main fence, rifles leveled and ready for a shot at anything that might come up the river. Officers shouted orders to their men, the prepared crates of ammunition and loaded magazines were hauled out from the supply houses, and within minutes the entire garrison was in place at the two lines of defense. I took my place at one of the rifle pits on the ridge, resting my rifle in one of the firing slots and flipping up the peep sight for a better shot. The trail from Tehatticup Flat was a mere hundred yards away and the river about four hundred, both easily within range.
Moments after I got to the wall, scores of khaki-clad troopers flooded down the hill and leveled their rifles down the ridge. I heard the actions of dozens of Service Rifles and Varmint Rifles being cycled, the shouts of officers and sergeants, and beneath the sounds of action I could hear the whispered prayers of the raw recruits. Looking to my left and right, I could see some of them kissing icons and crosses or closing their eyes in prayer even as they looked over their rifle sights.
"I guess this is it," Gibson said off to my right, "they finally got tired of waiting around for us to come get 'em. I say it's about damn time."
"I guess so, Gibson. I was getting bored waiting myself."
"This sure beats beating the brush for raiding parties, don't it?"
Any other time, it would have been a beautiful day. A cool wind came up off the river, stirring the bunch grass and the cactus flowers, the birds were singing on the cliffs on our south side, and I could hear the wind whispering through the Joshua trees. Sunlight reflected off the water, sparkling like so many diamonds on the ripples. I knelt behind the wall of sandbags, wishing we'd had more time to prepare defenses, watching that little bit of shoreline over my rifle sights just as all the young troopers around me were doing. The radio was blaring away a few yards to my left. It was the same old dribble we'd been listening to all the previous day; the Fiends were making trouble in West Vegas, Mr. House was making some new rule on the Strip, and apparently some courier got shot in Goodsprings.