The sun was climbing over the mountains across the river now, casting its light in our eyes as it rose. It would be like the Legion to attack in the early morning when the sunlight would blind an opponent. We had used that trick several times ourselves. My sunglasses protected my eyes for the most part, but the troopers around me were bare-eyed and would be struggling to see through the light. It was getting hot now, as the desert does once the sun comes out. I don't know if it was the heat or the nerves, but I felt great beads of sweat drip down my forehead and wet the sweatband of my hat. I tried to steady my breathing as I held my Cowboy Repeater steady, the barrel resting neatly in the firing slot between sandbags.
I could see the river and the trail to Tehatticup down below us and I tried to look to both of them at once to see where the enemy would be coming from. It would be more logical to come across the flats below Tehatticup, but I'd seen the boats that the Legion had brought up the river to Cottonwood and I wondered if they wouldn't try an amphibious landing. The runner back at the sutler's store had said that Station Echo had radioed in an attacking force heading our way, so they would have to have seen them coming from the station. That meant they would be under attack themselves. The station was in a good place and was easily defensible, but it was likely that there would be several riflemen firing down at the post to keep them pinned down. They wouldn't be committing their full force to such an attack, for ten or men in the rocks could pin down the post as easily as a hundred.
A slow hour passed with no event. I shifted position often and wiped the sweat from my hands after a while, but none of us dared to move. They were coming and we all knew it, and when they did we wanted to be ready for them. The time was not wasted, either. Twenty minutes or so after the initial alert went out, the ammunition carriers started running around. They brought crates of magazines and loose ammo to the men at the front, passing them around to the troopers and the few civilians that had grabbed their weapons and taken a hand in the fight. Most of them were using their old Varmint Rifles, which used the same caliber as the NCR Service Rifles, so there was no problem getting rounds. Several runners also came down from the town with several cases of .357 magnum rounds for us Rangers, placing them at regular intervals between us and peeling back the packaging for easy access. Some even came down with several bandoleers of ammo around their shoulders, which they handed off to us as they walked past.
The sun crept slowly over the horizon and climbed ever higher in the sky, still blinding us with its light and making us sweat as we gazed into it. I was glad the Rangers mostly issued only a white or tan shirt and a plain vest as a uniform, with combat armor available for times such as this, and the heavy armor that was worn by the regular NCR troops. I could see the sweat flowing down their faces as they strained to watch the field below them, although I have to say that not all of it would have been from the heat.
Where were they? If they were coming, why weren't they here? Marching men would take this long and longer to get here, and two hundred would take several hours to reach us from anywhere where they would have been spotted from Echo. Boats would take less time, and I had a feeling that that was the way they would be coming. Moving across the flats, they would know that they would be an easy target for hidden marksmen. They would be coming by the river all right. That's what I would do. I shifted my rifle and held my sight on the coastline, four hundred yards down the rolling hillside that spread out before us. Our sappers and engineers had turned that slope into a deathtrap, but I knew that it wouldn't hold them off forever.
The first shots we heard came from Tehatticup. I could pick out only three or four guns at first, but within a minute the fire was so consistent that I couldn't distinguish between individual weapons. They were too far away to hear anything specific, but we all knew what it meant. The enemy had arrived. We held our ground as the gunfire became more intense, even though some of the troopers begged to be allowed to go and help. The sergeants barked orders to them to stay at their posts, that the enemy would be coming along very soon, and I could hear them draw their sidearms as they ordered them to do so.
Only minutes after the shots began, I saw the first of the sails. It was large, square, and it was painted red with a golden bull across the center of it. It came around the edge of the cliffs like a giant floating banner, marking the coming of our foe as clearly as some messenger of death on a black horse. The dark hull of the ship came into view a moment later, and then a second sail, and then a third. They were the same ships I'd seen in Cottonwood Cove, and even from here I could see that they were loaded to the brim with men in red uniforms and shining metal armor. The ships came in close to the shore and lined up one behind the other, and a few minutes after we saw them coming up the river we heard the hulls groan as they ran into the soft sand along the banks. No sooner had they skidded to a halt than men began to pour from the decks.
They came from the ships in red waves, forming their lines and units as quickly as ants forming a line from an anthill, and I could see the sun glinting from machetes, rifle barrels, and armor as they sprang from the boats and poured onto the shoreline. There was a murmur of voices as they came into view, hundreds of them. I could sense the fear in them, as I could in myself, and I knew that this would be a hard fight.
"There's so many of them," I heard one of the men say off to my left, "how can we hold off that many?"
"They're just men, friend. Just hold center and squeeze that trigger gently."
I meant it as a reassurance, but my words sounded hollow even in my own voice. I could see immediately that the numbers down there were greater than what we had seen at Cottonwood Cove. There had to be close to three hundred men down there, not counting the men that would be attacking Tehatticup and Station Echo. More than three full centuriae, a full hundred more men that what we had expected!
Shots rang out from the upper ridge, heavy rounds that would have to be Hunting Rifles and one that I would have sworn had to be an Anti-Materiel .50-caliber. I saw men drop as they went into formation, the others barely noticing as they went about the business of falling into line. I took careful aim and picked out an officer on the front line, going up and down the line and waving his sword to fro as he barked orders. I adjusted my peep sight, held steady on the rest, then squeezed the trigger. The rifle bucked in my hands and I saw my man stagger, then worked the lever and fired again. My shot was better placed this time and he lurched to one side before falling dead. I fired three more shots as fast I could work the lever, firing at no one in particular but sweeping my shots down the line of men. One man fell, another jerked to one side, while the last shot either hit nothing or hit a man out of sight.
Again, the loss of their men seemed to bother the legionnaires not at all. They continued to file into lines and units smoothly and without hesitation. I'd heard stories of Legion discipline before this, but I had never imagined it would be anything like this. They put even the most elite units of the NCR to shame. I thumbed shells into my rifle and checked my revolvers, finding them both loaded and ready, then raised my rifle to my shoulder again after wiping the sweat from my hands.
A muffled shout came from the riverside, and as one man the legionnaires came forward at a fast trot. I took out my binoculars and looked over the ranks, looking for officers and heavy infantry that would make good targets. The first ranks were made up almost entirely of Recruits, with only a few Decanii acting as officers here and there. The second rank was made up mostly of Veterans, their armor polished for battle and their weapons held ready for use, and the third line of march was mainly mixed units that appeared to be mostly reserves. I saw several Vexilarii in the ranks, their banners showing brightly over the others, and on the deck of the first ship I saw a man in full metal armor that might have been Aurelius. I couldn't tell, but he looked unfamiliar to me.
Rifle shots boomed behind me and I saw more men falling, almost every shot, and as the lines formed they sent out skirmishers and sharpshooters ahead of the main force to try and keep down the sniper fire. Guns roared from down in the valley and bullets cut the air, some of them thudding against our sandbag walls, and we huddled behind the low wall and knelt down into the shallow trench that we'd dug for extra cover. The red line of marching troops came closer and closer, nearing the edge of the mines and other defenses we had laid over the previous days as their sharpshooters tried to keep our heads down. They marched low to the ground and those that had guns held them ready. Most of the Recruits had either machetes or pistols, with a few having rifles and the Decanii carrying submachine guns.
"Get ready, boys!", the lieutenant behind us shouted, immediately followed by the raising of Service Rifles over the wall and the clicking of safeties going off and magazines being checked.
We Rangers needed no telling, and I raised my rifle to the firing slot and eared back the hammer again. I picked out a Decanus in the first rank and held my sight on his chest, taking up slack on the trigger and taking in slow, deep breaths. They were getting closer now, less than two hundred yards. They were well within range of all our weapons now, but we held our fire. The closer they got the less likely we were to miss, and we had to make every bullet count. They fanned out a little here and there but for the most part they stayed bunched. Then there was a cry of alarm down the hill and to the left of me and I knew they had triggered the first of the mines. I held my sight on the Decanus and aimed for his gut, knowing that the round would jump up a little when I pulled the trigger. The mine exploded, throwing a geyser of sand and soil into the air along with blood and bits of legionnaire.
"Fire at will!"
I squeezed off my shot and instantly worked the lever on the rifle, firing again before the first one had faded. I saw the Decanus buckle and fall and instantly I shifted targets to the nearest Recruit. The line of the sandbag wall erupted with muzzle flashes and the thunderous roar of the guns. Most of the first line melted away under a wall of lead. The Decanii and officers raised their swords and screamed their battle cries, and at once the line of stoic figures erupted into a mass of screaming beasts charging forward as one man. The second line of troops raised their weapons and fired in volleys as their comrades made a human wave for the ridgeline and our wall. I levered shells into the chamber and fired again and again and again, scoring a hit with almost every shot. Men fell bloody and broken, their screams losing themselves in the din of the now constant gunfire, and all around me I heard the curses, prayers, and barking orders of the troopers.
Bullets whistled and popped through the air like flies, peppering the wall and showering us with sand and fragments. The trooper to the left of me was firing as fast as he could pull the trigger. His Service Rifle was empty in seconds and he dropped the empty magazine, replaced it with another, emptied it again and reached for another magazine in his bandoleer pouch.
"Slow down, bud," I said as I thumbed shells into my rifle, "pick your shots and make 'em count. There's plenty of these bastards to go around."
Again I put the rifle through the firing slot and fired into the nearest target, a Recruit charging hard up the hillside with his machete up and his face twisted in a battle cry. He was less than a hundred yards away when I fired into his chest. I saw the dust jump from his armor, then with the second shot I saw a piece of his arm disappear in a splash of crimson. I worked the lever again and fired into his head, dropping him for good. I fired at another Recruit that had come up right after the first, dropping him with my first shot to the neck.
Mines exploded all over the hillside. It seemed like every couple of seconds there was another explosion that shook the air and made the very ground tremble. Again and again I saw men and bits of men be thrown through the air in great clouds of blasted soil. Twice I saw men stop dead in their tracks and grab for their legs as they stepped into the bear traps we had set. One of them came running up the slope in a blind charge, and when the trap caught his leg he was jerked to a stop and screamed in agony. He grabbed his leg and actually seemed to be trying to pull the trap along with him on his way to the wall, but almost as soon as he stopped his chest erupted with dust and blood as half a dozen bullets from as many guns cut him down. I heard three men shout "Grenade!" and saw the three round objects go sailing through the air and down the hill, followed seconds later by three nearly simultaneous explosions and the screams of wounded and dying men.
Finally the charge broke and the first rank of attackers turned and retreated or dropped to the ground with rifles ready. We had broken the first charge, but at a high cost. Most of our mines and traps had been lost, we had lost four or five men that I could see as I looked up and down the line, and the enemy was now within fifty yards of our defensive wall. Bodies were strewn over the hillside, dozens of them at least, mostly lying a few feet apart from one another but in some places piled in heaps where we had focused our fire on ledges or places where men could come over banks and low places in the terrain. I guessed that we had dropped at least thirty or forty of them. We were doing well on that score, but this fight was just beginning.
The first rank of men had been nothing more than a ruse. Recruits were often used as cannon fodder by the Legion during battles like this and those that survived the action would be rewarded with promotions to higher ranks or given Veteran status, some even being made a Decanus in some instances. Down at the boats, more units were forming and marching up to the front. Ranks of Veterans and heavily armed reserves were moving up the now cleared off slope under the cover of their comrades' guns. They were laying down a consistent fire from their cover and we returned fire from our sandbags, peppering the brush with searching fire. The men in the tower sprayed the brush and the cleared slopes with the Light Machine Gun, every now and then flushing men from hiding for us to pick off.
I huddled behind the wall and searched for a target. Guns barked and I saw muzzle flashes from the sparse cover, some of them hiding behind the bodies of their fallen comrades, and every so often a bullet would smack into the sandbags on either side of my rifle barrel. I saw one of the flashes and I fired twice at where it had been and then another four fast shots, two on each side of the flash, and I heard a cry of pain from somewhere behind the drift sand. A Recruit sprang from the ground with a bloody hand on his shoulder, and almost immediately my own rifle and that of Ranger Gibson fired at once and dropped him in his tracks. Two troopers fired into the sparse cover and drew another man into the open and two more brought him down.
All this time I was thinking about that advance post over at Tehatticup. They were cut off from the main post and they were grossly outnumbered with only a couple dozen men. The Legion had been attacking them since the battle began and they had to be running low on ammo by now, probably had suffered casualties, and their position was far from the best. There was no telling how many men were coming down on them and there was no chance of getting reinforcements to them now that the battle was joined. All of our men were posted on the two lines of defense. If they took the mine, we were screwed.
The men in the tower started shouting then and shifted their fire to the left flank, blazing away with the Light Machine Gun at enemies I could not yet see. In a crouching run I left my place on the wall and went down the line toward our left. Along the way I tapped two troopers on the shoulder and signaled them to follow me. We reached the left flank of the ridge just in time to see the first of the Veterans charging out of the chaparral, one of dozens that were coming up from the lower slopes. I saw their armor shining in the sunlight and the weapons raising in their hands and I knew that we were in trouble.
What happened next was mostly done on instinct, impulse, and adrenaline. My rifle jumped to my shoulder and I fired it empty, all eleven shots, just as fast I could work the lever and in a single sweeping motion that went down the line of charging figures. The troopers I had brought and those that were on the wall fired as well, filling the air with the distinctive chatter of Service Rifles and the bark of the smaller carbines that the civvies had brought along. I saw men fall on both sides, NCR troopers and legionnaires alike. One of men with me went down and the other dove for the cover of a half-buried boulder, leaving me standing alone and in the open taking shells from my bandoleer and thumbing them into my empty repeater.
The attack had come on so sudden that the men on the line had been caught completely by surprise. If it weren't for my sudden action and that of the gunners in the tower I expect that the line would have been overrun and our flank would have been rolled up in minutes. The Veterans came roaring over the line and fired point-blank into our men, some brandishing blades in their hands and swinging for our men's heads. One of them came through the line and swung his machete, a broad curved blade that I'd heard called a Machete Gladius, and took off the head of a trooper with one swing and sticking the blade into another before coming for me. My rifle was only half loaded, but I worked the lever and fired from the hip. I held the muzzle low to avoid his heavy armor and I saw blood spurt from his leg, slowing him down but not stopping him. I worked the lever and fired again, this time at his gut. The bullet caught him square in the guts and he stumbled from the impact, but he kept coming.
Another step and he was on me. His blade came up and I could hear his growling voice screaming his battle cry from under his helmet. I stepped into his swing and brought my rifle barrel up hard, jamming the muzzle into his throat as he leaned into the swing and then bringing the butt up for a vicious strike. I felt the stock hit hard on his helmet and he went back a step. His blade came up for a thrust to my midsection and I slapped it away with my rifle and brought up a knee to his groin. The blow made him stumble off balance and I slipped my revolver from its holster, drawing, cocking and firing in one smooth motion and firing point-blank into his chest. He grabbed for the wound and fell, and when I saw two more Veterans coming over the wall I lifted the pistol and thumbed off two shots that sounded as one. One of them went down and the other staggered over the wall with a bullet in his arm.
I found myself moving forward then and before I knew it I was on the wall and looking down on close to a hundred men in red tunics and steel armor coming up the hillside. I saw red. Not in the tunics of the men coming up that hill, not in the blood that was now flowing in little rivulets from the bodies that were quickly piling up around me, but from the rage that suddenly rose up in me. This was it, I thought to myself, this is where I was going to meet my maker. Ma was gone, my family was gone, Jenny was gone, and now I was going to die here, in battle as I had always wanted. But I wasn't done yet. I was gonna die, but by God I'm gonna take as many of these bastards with me as I can!
I holstered the pistol and lifted my repeater to my shoulder, firing into the mass of charging figures below me until it clicked empty and then grabbing up a Service Rifle from a fallen trooper after slinging my own over my shoulder. I fired blindly, shooting as fast as I could squeezed the trigger, but they came on up the hill like so many red ants and were soon on me. I dropped the rifle and palmed my sixgun again while my left hand drew the Bowie from the sheath at my belt. I fired into a man's face, then into another's chest, and then they were on me.
The next few seconds were pretty lively. A Veteran came over the wall and took a swing at me with a machete, which I sidestepped and countered with a slash of my own. I held my knife overhand swept the blade up and under his arm, slicing though the tunic and unarmored skin like they were butter. He stiffened from the pain and I swung my revolver like a club and felt the long barrel hit him hard in the throat. There was a choking cry and he grabbed for his throat as he went down. A Recruit came over the wall and started to raise his shotgun at me and I thumbed my last shot into his chest. They were on me then, three of them, coming at me with machetes and gun butts. I slashed wildly with my knife and swung my gun barrel hard at skulls and unarmored skin, felt blood on my hands and spattering on my face and clothes, and I know I threw a punch at a Veteran's face and felt bone crunch under my fist.
Something hit me across the shoulder and I went down to one knee. In blind rage I lashed out with my Bowie and felt the blade find flesh and bone, and when I looked over I saw it stuck in the leg of a Decanus. He screamed in pain and I grabbed the 10mm Pistol from his belt and shot into his head, dropping him in his tracks, then got to my feet on shaky legs. My head swam and for a moment I wasn't sure if I could walk, but the dizzy spell passed after a second and I saw more of them coming over the wall. My revolver was on the ground and I couldn't reach it, but I had the dead Decanus' pistol and I lifted it to fire. I took a quick sight on the first Recruit's chest and squeezed the trigger - click. The gun was empty!
I tossed it away and shifted the Bowie to my right hand just as a Veteran came at me. He made a slash for my head and I caught his wrist, twisting it away and thrusting upwards and under his armor. I held the knife with the edge up and I felt it go in to the hilt. I stab again and feel him go limp in my arms, then shove him away in time to see another legionnaire coming at me. I'm too late to react other than to grab for the spear he was holding low for a thrust at my guts. I knocked the spear point away and his weight crashed into me and knocked me sprawling. We went down hard and he pulled a Combat Knife from his belt. I held his knife arm back and tried for a stab at his midsection but he grabbed for my wrist and held it back. We wrestled fiercely for a moment, each of us trying to outmuscle the other. His knife came close to my face and I pushed back with all my might, trying to free my own knife hand from his iron grip. I tried a knee to the groin, than again, and I felt his grip loosen the faintest bit.
I could see his eyes glaring at me from behind his mask. Just like the man back at the river that day, they were filled with such hatred as I had never seen before. He wanted me dead in the worst way. He wanted me dead so bad that he could taste it. The Legion bred them to hate, taught them to kill from an early age and instilled a lust for death for all things not Legion. They were taught to kill and to hate, but they had one thing going against them now. As bad as they wanted me and mine dead, it was nothing compared to how much I wanted to kill every last one of them.
I planted my feet and lifted myself up and him with me, then with a hard kick of my knee I lifted him up and over me and threw him off. I heard him hit the ground behind me and I rolled to one knee and grabbed for the spare gun in my belt. He jumped to his feet and reached for a rifle on the ground, and before I could even think about it I thumbed back the hammer and felt the gun jump in my hand. The bullet split his helmet and he went backwards as if he'd been pole-axed.
Rifles boomed up the slope and bullets whistled through the air at unseen targets and far down the slope I heard the shouted orders of Legion officers. The attack had been broken. For the first time I looked around me at what had been a crowded defense line. What I saw was absolute carnage. Bodies were piled on and over the sandbags, both Legion and NCR, the once dry sand was now red and slick with blood, and everywhere there were weapons and spent magazines or cartridge casings. Wounded men were everywhere, some of them missing limbs or hands, and the few men that were still standing were either walking wounded themselves or were covered in the blood of their dead enemies. I looked down at myself and saw that I was just as bad. I picked up my revolver and reloaded it, filled the empty chambers in the spare, then un-slung my rifle and reloaded it as well. My bandoleer was empty by then and I tossed it away, then pulled another one off of a dead trooper who'd been issued a repeater.
One look up and down the line and I knew that we would never be able to hold. There had been dozens of troopers along the line before the attack and now there were only a handful.. Another attack like that and they would roll right over us like we weren't even there. They had hit us all up and down the lower line and had broken through on the right flank for a moment before being pushed back by fresh troops and sniper fire from the town. There was just no way that we could hold the ridge, and when the order came to pull back to the town I was more than happy to oblige. The lieutenant and platoon sergeant were both dead, so I sort of naturally started to give orders. They were already looking to me for direction and there was just no one else. Most of them were little more than boys and all of them were reeling from their first action. I ordered them to gather the wounded and all the ammunition they could carry, and within seconds we were heading up the slope.
I scooped up a Service Rifle as I ran and grabbed the sling of another, running with them in my left hand and my own rifle in my right held by the grip and ready for action. It was only then that my shoulder started to hurt and I remembered the blow I had taken. There was no way for me to know how bad it was until we got up the hill, though, so I fought through the pain and followed the men up the slope. We got to the main line of defense and climbed the sandbag wall into the town itself. The wall was lined with troopers, all of them with rifles trained on the lower slope and many of them wearing bandages. Less than half of our original force remained. I saw the boys coming over the wall just a minute or two after us and I ran to meet them, and when I got there I saw that they, too, were in bad shape. Gibson had a gash over his eye that looked to have come from a bullet and as he went down to one knee to cover the slope I saw two soldiers bringing Grey over the wall. He'd been shot twice, once through the body and once through the gut, and there was a slash on his arm from a machete. His left arm was rendered useless by the wound, but he still held a revolver in his good hand and I could see the fire in his eyes.
Cooper and Bronson were both on the wall now, just a few yards apart in one of the parapets we had built to act as bastions, and I could see right away that they'd done some shooting. At both men's feet was a pile of spent brass that had to have been about fifty rounds per man. I didn't speak to them and they didn't notice me. They were too busy picking targets as they came across the flat down below to be interested in me. Farther down the line I could see Milo and his troopers, plus a few other Rangers that I didn't know. Major Polatli was just behind the line and screaming into a field radio for reinforcements, and just inside the fence I could see the field hospital. Wounded men were all over the ground and the few medics we had were going from one to the other administering what aid they could.
"Well, boy," Gibson said, "we give 'em a damn good fight so far."
"That we did, sir."
"It's been a pleasure serving with ya, son. I hope we come out of this alright."
"Me, too, sir. How's the eye?"
"Just a scratch. Better than your shoulder."
He had seen the blood on my shirt and I had felt it flowing, but now I let him have a look at the wound itself. I remembered feeling the blow and that the man had hit me with a machete. I feared that the blade had gone deep and severed something, maybe that was why I hadn't really felt it until now. I had put that down to adrenaline. Wounds, even serious ones, sometimes were not felt at all until a man calmed down from the rush of battle. Gibson looked over the wound and tied some bandages over it, then explained. The blade had hit me across the shoulder blades, cutting into the skin of my left shoulder and scraping my right with what looked like just the tip of the blade. I might have killed me, but the blade had hung up on my bandoleer and the blow had been cushioned by my vest and the thick muscle I had across the shoulders. It takes a serious blade to cut through leather, especially the thick tanned Brahmin hide that my vest was made of and the even thicker leather of the cartridge belt, and apparently the legionnaire had neglected to put a fine enough edge on his weapon.
The sound of shooting was constant now. Cooper and Bronson were firing non-stop and were already halfway through a case of cartridges and the other snipers were pouring through brass like there was no tomorrow. For a lot of us, there wouldn't be. We'd lost half our men, at least fifty men dead or more, and most of those that were left were either walking wounded or out of action. The enemy was far out of range for my rifle, but as I watched the valley below I saw them coming on again. They had rallied their troops and formed into new units and they were marching up the slopes again.
Looking down at the lines of troops marching up from the river valley, I knew we were in for it. Those first two attacks had been mostly Recruits and some Veterans, but now they were bringing up their reserves. The men coming at us now were the Prime units, the elite veterans that were sent in only for the fiercest fighting. They wore thicker armor, steel plates that would stop most bullets and turn anything but the heaviest blades, and they were the toughest sons of bitches that they had. All of them were veterans on their way up through the ranks and all of them were picked out for their loyalty and ferocity. The remains of the previous assaults came up the hill from the flanks, while the Primes came straight up the center at double-time firing as they went. I could see men dropping as they ran, spreading out from the ranks and moving from cover to cover to provide suppressing fire.
It's amazing what runs through a man's mind at such times. Right then, looking down that hill at hundreds or marching enemies, all of them out for my blood, I started to think about home. I could see Jenny, her long red hair flowing the breeze as she hung out the wash, I could hear my mother calling my brother and sisters for supper, and I could smell the stew on the fire. It was like I was back there now, rather than sitting behind two feet of sandbags surrounded by boys and grizzled veterans, many of whom wouldn't live to see the dusk, about to face an enemy that wanted my blood just for being not of their tribe. I touched the chain that held my dogtags under my shirt and found the ring that had once belonged to my wife. It felt good to feel that ring under my fingers. A lot of sweat, hard work, and love had gone into that ring.
I remember her face when I brought it home to her. I'd told her that I was going to New Vegas to sell some hides and scrap, which was partly true, and that I would be back in a few days. It took the jeweler that long to make the ring to my standards. I wanted to make sure that it was perfect for her, and the look on her face made it worth all the caps I'd spent for it. She always loved gold and turquoise, so getting that perfect stone and the engraved band had been a blessing. She had worn that ring proudly, showing everyone that came by and telling anyone that would listen that she had the best husband in the world. And now she was dead. Her, my mother, my family, and everyone we'd known. They were all dead, all because of those men down there and men like them who lusted for blood and land. I owed them a debt and now I meant to collect.
I looked again the young faces around me. Only a few of the troopers here were much older than eighteen, some barely fifteen, and almost none of them had seen combat before today. They were just a couple years younger than me, but boy I may be I had seen more blood than any of them. Today they'd been tested and so far they had passed. Whatever else could be said of them, they were men now. I was proud to fight with them, and even prouder to die beside them. Too many men get the idea that they're invincible. They think it'll always be others that catch that bullet, take that blade, but never them. I had never had such ideas. I had seen enough men die to know that death comes for us all sooner or later, and that once that number's up there's just no running away from it. Well, I thought, if I'm to die today then by God I'll make it worth remembering. I checked the loads in my rifle and pistols, wiped my sweaty hands on my shirt, and looked over at my old friends.
"Boys," I said, "it's been a pleasure."
They all looked at me then, all of us knowing that this might be our last fight, and I could see that they felt the same. We had covered ground together, spilled and shed blood together, shared food, water, and danger, and no one had to tell us that each had the other's respect. Grey was leaning against the wall, holding his wounded stomach, but even through the pain he managed a smile. Gibson held out a hand and I took it, then so did Cooper and Bronson.
"Hell, boys," Gibson said as he spat out a stream of tobacco juice, "what's the matter with you? You wanna live forever?"
They came in a mad rush then, their armor shining in the high midday sun and their swords flashing as they were waved to and fro. Major Polatli ordered us to hold fire until they were almost on us, then just as they were coming up the slope from the lower line he let out a wild yell and thirty guns spoke as one. My rifle jumped in my hands and I saw the first rank of attackers melt away before me, and then I was shooting. I fired as fast as I could work the lever, shifting only a foot or two from one target to another. I saw men fall bloody and screaming, bullets glancing off of armor, and then the wild eyes of legionnaires as they came over their dead and headlong into the fence and the town perimeter.
The first man came over the sandbags with a 10mm in his hand, and firing my rifle from the hip I saw him fall behind the wall. I worked the lever and fired again at the next man, taking him in the chest and knocking him into the legionnaire behind him. The trooper beside me went down and when I looked to check his wound I saw a spear sticking out from him on both sides. Cooper and Bronson fired their Hunting Rifles empty, then dropped them and grabbed up Service Rifles that had been brought from the battlefield below and cut loose with volleys of rolling thunder. Legionnaires came over the wall in a rush, swarming us with small arms fire and flashing blades. I swung my gun up and felt the barrel hit a skull, then brought the stock up in a vicious butt-stroke that caught a legionnaire in the face and send blood and teeth flying.
I could hear the screams of the wounded and dying, the battle cries of the living, and the continuous roar of the guns. I was lost in a flurry of movement, swinging first my repeater and then my knife at red-clad forms as they came over the wall. They fell in droves, but they just kept coming. Evil as they may be, these were some damned brave men! Troopers went down under swinging swords and blasts of buckshot and lead, and within seconds the order came for a full retreat. Ten or so men crowded into the parapet with us Rangers, holding back the assault as best we could while the others cleared out the field hospital. There was just no way to get them all out. Men tossed the wounded men that they could over their shoulders and helped the ones that could still walk to their feet, but some of them were just too far gone. I took a quick look at the mass of movement at the hospital and saw officers tossing pistols and spare rifles to the men that could still use them just before running after the others into the valley north of town.
The legionnaires were coming in waves now, but they knew this was our last stand and that the Rangers were now defending what was left of the town. They had steam-rolled over the green recruits that had been on the line, but they knew who they were fighting now and that made them hesitant. We had several spare guns and a mountain of ammunition inside the parapet, but we knew that we couldn't hold them off forever. They were moving to surround us now and there was heavy fire coming from the lower walls and the little cover offered by the broken ground down below. We hunkered down and fired through the slots at everything that came into view.
I picked my targets. A Recruit stood up to run to a better spot, and just as he started to go down behind a clump of brush I drilled him right through the brisket. I shot him in the act of falling, but I saw his body twitch and he stiffened as he hit the ground and then I saw his leg go limp behind the brush. I worked the lever and replaced the shell, taking a sight on another Recruit that was standing up to fire at my spot. Our two shots sounded almost at the same time and sand stung my eyes as the bullet hit the wall. My bullet hit him, too low down. His leg buckled beneath him and he staggered a mite before diving back down into cover.
Thumbing shells into the repeater, I looked off toward that valley to the north. It was a hard scramble to get across that valley, the banks were high and steep and the northern edge was defended by the men at Camp Forlorn Hope. Once they were in rifle range of the camp, the Legion would let them go. They had lost a lot of men here, much more than they had probably expected to, and they wouldn't be anxious to try and buck a fully armed camp full of fresh troops. If we could just buy them enough time to get away . . . .
Something changed in the air then. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, but when I saw the dust coming up the road to Tehatticup Mine I knew what it had to be. The shooting at the mine had stopped, and there was no way in Hell that that dust was coming from the twenty or so men that had been sent to defend it. I watched the canyon where the road ran down to the mine and hoped that I was wrong. It took only a minute for the first of the troops to come into view. They were all wearing red tunics, dressed in bloody armor, and holding bloody swords and guns in their hands. There were dozens of them, and they were coming up on our right flank!
"Hell with this! Let's get outta here!", I yelled to the others.
"Don't have to tell me twice, son," Gibson replied, "let's move, boys!"
We left the wall then in a rush of movement, all but Grey. Gibson and I stayed just long enough to give the others some covering fire, then Gibson turned and ran for the next firing line that Cooper and Bronson had already stopped and set up. I started to grab Grey's arm to help him up, but he slapped it away.
"Bullshit, we're leavin'!"
"Get the hell outta here, damn it. I'm done and you know it."
I couldn't really argue with him. He was gutshot and his arm was useless, and that bullet through the chest might have punctured a lung. Even if we got him to a doctor, if he survived the run across the valley, he would still be a dead man. There wasn't much to say between us, so we didn't even bother. He had his revolver in his hand with the hammer cocked and ready. I slid the spare out of my belt and laid it in his lap. He smiled his old crooked smile that had lit up many a camp, then I turned and ran after Gibson.
Bullets cut the dirt at my feet and whistled through the air within inches of me as I ran. Something tugged at the loose end of my vest sleeve and another bullet clipped the edge of my hat. I ran to where Cooper and Bronson were positioned and went to one knee, tapped Cooper on the shoulder, and then they were running while Gibson, Milo, and I fired down the slope at the line of legionnaires down below. Their reinforcements were coming up the far side of the hill, out of our sight, and we mostly fired at the sandbag line rather than at individual targets. We fired until there was a call from behind us, then I turned and ran with the others while I thumbed fresh shells into my rifle. My bandoleer was empty and I tossed it away, taking the last shell I needed from my belt.
We did this for about a hundred yards, until we came to the edge of the valley. Heavy fire was coming from the town but not as heavy as it had been before. I heard an explosion from the defensive line, and when I looked back over my shoulder I saw a cloud of dust and falling debris hanging over our parapet. Grey had always been the kind to go out with a bang. Legionnaires came over the wall and flooded into the town like a bloody torrent and there was shooting from the remains of the hospital, and I knew that our wounded were done for. The shooting kept up for a minute or two, then the guns went silent and there was only the fire being directed at us.
They were coming for us now, at least a dozen of them running down our trail while the rest broke off to burn and pillage the town. I ran, stopped and fired, ran again, stopped and fired again, until finally the steep ledge of the valley loomed before us. My legs were burning and my breath came in great gasps, and suddenly there was in me an anger like I'd never felt before. These bastards had taken enough from me! My home, my family, and now my friends!
The others needed time to get away, and I intended to give it to them. I let Milo run on ahead of me, down the slope and into the valley, and then I sidestepped onto one of the large boulders that lined the edge of the slope and turned to face them. I held my rifle waist-high and levered in a round, and then I was facing them as they came on. Five or six pure-bred sons of bitches, all of them out for my blood and lifting guns and blades at me.
"Come on, you bastards! It's a great day to die!"
I fired from the hip and saw a man stagger, then fall after I levered another round in and shot him again. I replaced the shell and shifted aim to a Decanus spraying bullets from this 10mm submachine gun at me, cutting the dirt at my feet, and I fired two fast shots that took him in the chest and the head, respectively. A shotgun boomed and I felt buckshot dig into me, stinging me in the arm, shoulders, and face. I worked the lever again and saw a Prime Recruit reloading his Caravan Shotgun. My bullet caught him in the neck and he grabbed at it with bloody hands as he fell. I started to work the lever again, but I was stopped when a bullet came out of thin air and ripped through my shoulder.
The impact of the shot set me back a step and I almost fell. A Veteran came screaming at me with his machete raised high, and holding my rifle in one hand, like a pistol, I fired into his face at point-blank range. His crazed war cry ended in a choking scream and crumpled and went down like a sack of potatoes. I tried to work the lever on my rifle one-handed then, but right then I heard the boom of heavy rifles and two slugs caught me at almost the same instant. One I saw rip through my chest just below the right collarbone, the other I felt go through my left thigh. My leg went out from under me and I hit the hard-packed earth, and then I felt myself falling.
I hard on a ledge, then another, and then I rolled for I don't know how long. The world swam around me as my vision started to blur and all I could feel was pain. Pain from my wounds, pain from the bones I must have broken in the fall, and pain that I hadn't been able to do what I had wanted to do. I wanted to get revenge for my family, to kill the man that had taken them from me, to make the Legion pay for what they had done, but now all that was gone. I was dying in the sand of the Mojave, just as I had always thought I would. I heard shooting and shouting, although it sounded like it was miles away, and then I was being lifted into the light.
"I'm sorry, folks," I heard myself say, my voice barely more than a whisper, "I'm sorry."