For a long time I didn't know if I was alive or dead. I heard strange noises in the darkness, saw masked faces, heard mumbles of voices that I didn't recognize. They said things like, "He'll never make it," "he's a tough bastard," and "by God he'll pull through," but I could never tell if they were real or not. I saw people and wounded men in flashes of hazy vision, but always I returned to the darkness again. Over and over again I saw my family and Jenny, like I was sitting out on the porch on a bright, clear sunny day. Ma was hanging the wash out on the line, Hattie and Barb were playing in the cornfield, Angus was shelling the fresh ears and cleaning them up for cooking, and Jenny was up on the hill. She was just standing there, not really doing anything, just looking out over the desert and the Joshua trees.
She was beautiful as she had ever been. Her long red hair hung down her back and was streaming out in the wind, she was dressed in her best green sundress, and she had yellow cactus flowers in her hair that shone like gold in the morning sun. I was walking toward her, although I just wanted to stand and look at her, and when I came close she turned to look at me. Never in my entire life had I ever seen anything so beautiful. She smiled at me, her white teeth shining like pearls, her skin was light and yet still tanned just a little from the desert sun, and her green eyes looked into mine and I could feel them peering into my very soul. If this was death, then I was happy that it found me. I wanted to cry, I wanted to shout my happiness for all to hear, I wanted to thank whatever supreme being had allowed me this kindness, but most of all I wanted to take her in my arms and tell her how much I loved her, how much I had missed her, and to kiss her.
"Not yet, Dan," she said in that musical voice of hers, the voice that had calmed me many a time when the world turned my heart to rage or had me down in the dumps, "not yet, my love."
My eyes opened then, and for a minute I didn't know if what I saw was real or if I was still in a dream. I was sure that what I'd seen had been a dream. Jenny, my Jenny, was dead. My mother, my brother, and my sisters were dead, and the farm where I'd hoped to spend my days was a pile of ash and scrap. What I'd seen was impossible.
The first thing I felt was the pain. My shoulders both hurt something awful, as did my leg, and it was then that it all came back to me. The battle at Nelson, running with the other Rangers, getting shot, and tumbling down the hill. I was sure that I had died or would die there, but I guess the world didn't want me gone yet.
For a while I just listened, trying to see where I was and letting my eyes adjust. It felt like it had been ages since last I'd used them and they were scratchy and sore in their sockets. I could hear mumbles and groans of pain around me, the clatter of metal tools being picked up or tossed back onto trays, and in the air was a thick stench of blood and steel. And there was a sound beside my bed that caught my attention most of all. It was a whisper of sound like leaves turning, the leaves of a book. What would a book be doing in a place like this? And who would be reading it? After a few minutes I finally forced myself to open my eyes fully and to look around, and then to pull myself up and into a sitting position.
I was in the medical tent of Camp Forlorn Hope. I had been here a couple of times before, always checking up on wounded friends or bringing men in to be treated, but I had always hoped to never be on the receiving end of this place. It was a good enough hospital, probably the best that a man could get this side of New Vegas, but there was always something about it that just gave me the creeps. The beds were all full with men that were in the same or worse shape as me. Some of them had bandaged heads, hands, or arms, while others just had bloody stumps wrapped in bloody bandages where limbs had been. Most of the worse-off ones were out cold on their cots, but a few of them were awake and groaning from the pain of their wounds or talking to their neighbors. One man stumbled around the corner toward the sheet metal door, hopping on the one leg he had left and using crutches to walk. Doc Richards was at the other end of the tent now, and by the sound of things he must have been working on some poor bastard that had just come in.
I looked around to the side of my bed and I saw her there. She was sitting in a beaten-up chair and reading some Old World book with a blue binding and cover. Funny, somehow I had never taken Angeline for a reader. She was dressed in a wastelander's rough clothes, like a Mercenary Grunt, and the pistol on her hip showed that she meant business. A Hunting Rifle leaned against the back of the chair, probably the same one that I'd given her back there in the desert, and her hair was pulled back into a short ponytail that would loop nicely through the back of the ball cap that was hanging from the rifle's barrel. She looked rather fetching in her traveling clothes, I must admit.
She looked up with a start when I spoke, a smile coming over her face when I tried to get up. And I do mean tried, since the mere effort of pushing myself up on my elbows nearly made me yell. My arm hurt something fierce and my shoulders nearly gave way under my own weight.
"Be careful," she said as she came over to help me, "you'll hurt yourself even worse."
"I don't see how. Seems like other people do it well enough already."
She helped me up into a better position where I could lean against the bed frame, and I have to say that I would've liked her to stay in her seat and read her book. It hurt like hell to move that way, but I'm a man that hates to have help from anybody for any reason when I could help it. It felt good to be in a sitting position, so I could see the place better. I hate not being able to see what's going on around me.
I could see the corner table of the tent where they put patients' belongings, and on top of it I could see my clothes, my rifle, and my gunbelt. I hadn't realized that I was naked, aside from my bandages and my underwear, and suddenly I felt a little embarrassed. Not that I had any reason to be. I'd been with my share of women before Jenny and Angeline had been a working girl. She had seen more than her share of manliness, I'm sure. Still, it made me uncomfortable to be in my drawers in front of a lady.
Angeline sat back down and picked up her book again, pretending to find her place again while still looking at me. I could see that she could tell that I was embarrassed, and that she found it amusing. She was a pretty woman, that was for sure, and she wasn't hiding it now like she was back on the desert. Her leather vest did nothing but emphasize her more than ample bosom and her new white shirt was buttoned a little too low for modesty. I had put it down to the heat, which was already stifling inside the tent, but there seemed to be a little more to it than that. I couldn't help but look at her the way any man would, even though I had just been dreaming about my own dear Jenny.
"How long have I been out?"
"Four days. The doctor didn't think you'd last one. You had a bad fever ever since they brought you in that just broke last night. Those wounds of yours were pretty bad and you lost a hell of a lot more blood than any living man has a right to."
"Who brought me in?"
"A couple of other Rangers. An older man with a gray mustache and a big black man with a thick beard."
"Gibson and Milo. I should have figured."
"They said that you saved their lives. That you stood there and fought off the legionnaires like a madman. That you were a hero."
"That's one way to put it. I sure as hell don't feel very heroic."
"I bet not," the doctor said as he came over to my bed, pulling off a pair of bloody rubber gloves, "in truth, you're damn lucky to be alive. One of those bullets went through your lung and the other nearly nicked the femoral artery. Another half-inch to the left and you would have bled out in a minute. Of course that other wound might have killed you if they hadn't gotten you in here when they did. I had to use most of my Hydra supply and nearly all my regenerative meds to get it to heal up right."
"Much obliged, doc. How are the rest of the boys?"
"They're alright. This place was full to capacity and more when you all came in, but I would have had a lot fewer patients if you hadn't stood off those legionnaires like you had. I had a lot of men at death's door come in here that wouldn't have lived to fight another day if it weren't for you, son."
He checked my bandages and said that my wounds were healing well, and that it would be a few weeks before I was myself again. That didn't sit well. I had always been a man that preferred to be up and on my feet and being laid up just didn't feel right. I'd taken wounds before that had laid me up for a few days, but never anything like this. My wounds were hurting me something fierce when he moved me around to check them, but before he went back for his rounds he gave me a snort of Hydra to ease the pain. I've never used that stuff recreationally, but it sure did wonders in a medicinal capacity.
I asked about the battle at Nelson before he left, and what he told me wasn't good. The town had been taken and occupied, and since then the NCR had finally decided to send in fresh troops to Forlorn Hope, Camp Golf, and, of course, to the Dam. Always they had to send men to the Dam. Sometimes it seemed like the whole Mojave could go to Hell and gone for all the NCR cared just as long as they could hold on to that damned Dam. The lines had been drawn and the valley between here and Nelson had apparently been turned into a kill zone. The valley floor had been mined all to hell and the hills had been fortified and were bristling with men and rifles. I had been hearing distant pops and chatter that sounded like rifles, but up until now I couldn't tell if they were really gunshots or not. Now I was certain.
Legion raiding parties had been seen in the west coming out of Cottonwood Cove and had been raiding across the Mojave as far as Novac and Station Charlie. Charlie had been attacked at least once since the battle and was seeing Legion scouts almost every day. The Legion had lost a lot of men during the battle, estimates ranging as high as a hundred and fifty or more, but we had taken our own share of loss as well. Of the hundred men that had been defending Nelson, only twenty-three made it out alive. Nothing had been heard of the men who had been defending Tehatticup Mine, but it was a pretty safe bet that they had been wiped out.
"It's pretty bad," Richards said, "every day we send out raiding parties to weaken them and they send out parties to weaken us, and every day I get fresh patients. Gunshots, machete cuts, shrapnel from mines, I get it all in here. I miss the days when the worst I had to worry about was a few Gecko bites and the occasional addict."
He finished up and was gone without another word, leaving me and Angeline alone again. The man in the bed next to me was in bad shape and it looked like he was on some kind of sedative that was keeping him under. That was for the best. He was covered with burns and I could see the shrapnel wounds on his body. It looked like he wound up on the wrong end of a land mine somewhere out there on the battlefield. Looking around, I saw a lot of men that were in the same boat. I a couple of faces that I recognized from Nelson, but most of the wounded were men that I didn't know. Just as the doctor had said, it looked like there was just about every kind of wound in the tent. I saw men with bandages over large cuts, bullet wounds on the torsos and one man on a bed across the tent that was missing a hand.
I hate hospitals. I always had hated them, and I always will. Just being in one made me feel queasy, and after a minute or two Angeline as much as said what I was thinking. She was looking down at her book, but anyone could see that she wasn't interested in reading anymore. This place had a stench about it, a feeling of uneasiness that just made my skin crawl. She'd been around and I was sure that she'd seen her share of wounds and death, but just because people like us see that kind of thing all the time doesn't mean that we like it or like being around it. I would have liked to have been a farmer on the family plot, but the world has a way of taking the plans that a man or a woman lays out for themselves and throwing them all out the window.
"Did you stay here with me, Ange?"
I don't know why I called her that and after I said it I half-wanted to take it back, but she looked over at me and smiled when she heard it. It felt odd, but she looked like she was happy that I had addressed her in such a familiar way.
"Yes, I did. I came here as soon as I heard about what happened. We heard the shooting all the way in Novac, and I wanted to be sure that you were alright."
"How are the kids?"
"They're fine. Ranger Andy and the others got back the other day. They took them to the Old Mormon Fort and left them with the Followers."
"That's good. They need someplace safe. How are things at Novac?"
"Not good. While the others were gone, a Legion raiding party snuck through the lines and hit the town. There wasn't an attack, but they made off with Carla Boone. The rest of the town thinks she just ran off, but I found the tracks around town. No-Bark said he saw men in red, and the tracks I found were made by men in studded sandals."
"Did you go after 'em?"
"Craig wanted to, but Manny talked him out of it. It was just them and No-Bark and a couple others in town and if it was the Legion then they'd need all the men they had to hold them off if they came around again. He still wants to go and track them, but Andy isn't sure."
"I'll lend him a hand myself."
"Like hell you will. You heard the doc. You're in bad shape."
"I'll be on my feet in a couple days. Once I am I'll be out there with him. I can't heal up proper here, though."
"You think you could do better in Novac? I could take you there."
That hadn't occurred to me. I was thinking more like my own tent somewhere on post or a prospector's camp that I knew of close by, but the idea of going back to Novac wasn't a bad one. I could lay up and heal up in my old hotel room or a bungalow in town, get my strength back with plenty of fresh air and a lot of Dusty McBride's Brahmin steaks, and talk to Boone about what had happened. I'd only met the man for a few short minutes, but that was enough to know that he was a tough man and a good one. He was a warrior through and through and he loved his wife, even if she didn't completely return the favor. I knew what he was going through right now all too well. Only his wife was alive, so far as he knew, and in his place I would have been out on their trail before who flung the chunk.
We talked on for a while about what had happened. Apparently someone had come into town late in the night and made off with Carla Boone while her husband was on sniper duty in the dinosaur. There had been no struggle, no noise, no sign that anything was out of the ordinary at all. The only way they even knew that she was gone was when her husband came back to their room and found her gone. Naturally, he had gone ballistic. He was screaming at everyone that he could find asking where she was, if they had seen her, or if they had seen or heard anything that night. No one had, aside from No-Bark. His word didn't carry that much weight around town, him being the village nutcase, but Craig believed him and so did I. Crazy he might be, but he was the only one that had anything usable to say about it.
The strangest thing about it was that there had been no noise at all. Carla Boone was a city woman through and through and would surely have screamed or raised some kind of a fuss if someone was trying to kidnap her. She would have kicked, screamed, and raised all kinds of hell. Angeline said that Jeannie May and a couple others in town were saying that she just up and left her husband and took off for New Vegas in the night. But nothing was missing from her room. No food, no clothes, no gear of any kind, nothing that she would have surely taken with her if she was planning to cross the desert. They said she must have met someone that was taking her to the city, but who would she meet that would be wearing studded sandals? No one in the Mojave wore sandals like that, no one but the Legion.
Angeline stayed with me for a while and we talked of different things for a couple hours. I asked her more about the kidnapping, about how she'd been since coming to Novac, about the latest news of the war, and several other subjects. She put away her book and brought us coffee from the pot across the tent, which was weak and at least two days old, and around about sundown she left for a few minutes and came back with food. It was simple camp food, pork and beans with half-stale hardtack, but to me it was like a feast. I hadn't eaten any real food in days and right about now my stomach was thinking that my throat had been cut. Right about then I could have eaten an entire dead Brahmin, but I settled for two plates of beans, four cups of coffee, and a half a dozen hardtack crackers.
Two days passed by slowly and I never left that damn bed. I hated being laid up, but there was nothing for it. My wounds hurt me something awful and I couldn't hardly move at all, but I made do. I was healing, and that's all that mattered. The faster I healed, the faster I could get a gun in my hand and my ass back on the trail. I had legionnaires to kill and trails to cover and I wasn't getting any of that done laying here on that bed. I ate the crappy food and drank the weak coffee that they were bringing me and most of the day I just slept. Gibson was out on a patrol in the valley with Cooper and Bronson and Milo had been sent to secure the western entrance to Nelson, just down the road from Novac, so I didn't get any visitors aside from Angeline. She came to see me every day and brought me some books that she found in the storerooms. Some of them were pretty good. She brought me one that had the covers torn off ages ago, something about a sailor named Ishmael and a crazy boat captain who was hunting something called a whale, that I really got into. I read it in a day and a half.
After two days of laying in that bed I was ready to be moving, although I wasn't nearly up to snuff, and I was all too happy when Angeline came in and said that the doctor had given me permission to go back to Novac with her. There was an old cart in camp that was normally used to haul supplies back and forth and she rented that to haul my crippled ass back to town. As much as I hate to admit it, I felt as weak as a Mole Rat pup. I could barely stand up and go across the hospital tent to get a cup of coffee from the pot. My arm and shoulders were still hurting me, but they were healing and pained me just a little less. Thankfully I'd broken no bones during my tumble down the hill, but my left arm had been badly wrenched and I had a bruised bone in my right leg that was really bothering me now. I could barely walk and when I did it was with a limp.
I was happy to be out in the open air and have my gunbelt on again. I limped my way around the camp for a few hours, shared a smoke with some of the troopers who had been at Nelson, and finally I made my way to the southern wall. Down below I could see the battlefield, for I didn't know what else I could call it. The land was scarred by explosions and the popping and crackling of gunfire was almost constant. Men were coming and going in and out of camp every so often, usually with wounded men in tow.
There were always men on the wall and there were at least two machine gun emplacements trained on the valley, along with two men in the camp that were armed with Fat Mans. Attack was a possibility, but one look at the lay of the land and I knew that it was highly unlikely. The position here was infinitely better than that of Nelson. The valley was the only place where a large force could approach the camp. Cliffs towered up and away on both sides and a narrow trail led away towards the flats, narrow enough that just a few men could hold it if need be. The field of fire was a good one and the valley below had been turned into a death trap over the last week. An attack on this place would be near suicide without a significant force. The fight at Nelson had cost them plenty, much more than they must have planned for, and they would not be anxious to throw more men into an assault like that. They had Nelson and Cottonwood Cove, they had their foothold, they had a place to land fresh troops. They had all they wanted.
It was a bright, sunny morning when we left the camp, Angeline and I, and I was glad to be out of that damn tent. It felt good to be back in the open air. I could smell the Joshua trees, the sage and the chaparral, the banana yucca and wild tobacco growing on the slopes of the high hills, and the water flowing in the river down below the camp. My leg felt bad and my shoulder was sore, but it still felt good to be up and about again. I stowed my gear in the wagon and started to climb up to the seat, but one try at the step and I could tell that it just wasn't happening. Just a little bit of weight on that game leg and I had to stop myself from yelping from the pain. So, feeling more than a little sheepish, I just hopped into the bed and let Ange do the driving.
I couldn't remember the last time I was in a wagon. I had escorted caravans across the Mojave a time or two and guarded supply trains several times, but it seemed like years since I'd actually ridden in one. After an hour of jostling around in the bed of that wagon, I knew why I hadn't taken the time to have a ride in one. Every rock, every twig, every bump in the road made the whole thing lurch up and down and from side to side until my bones felt as if they were stones rolling around inside a bean can. I tried to sleep but couldn't, I tried to take out my old deck of cards and play solitaire but the motion of the cart wouldn't let them sit still, and finally I just pulled myself to a sitting position against the back of the bed and watched the country roll by around and behind us.
"Been a while, has it?"
"Longer than I can remember, Ange."
"I can't remember a time when I wasn't in a wagon."
"Were you in the caravans?"
"Went over the trail to New Reno and New Canaan a couple times, brought supplies to and from California, and I even went through Arizona once."
"I bet that was fun."
"Not as much as you'd think. Caesar may be a cold-hearted bastard, but one thing he can do is keep the roads safe. In the NCR you can barely go five miles without getting shot at or hailed by raiders or bandits and there isn't a caravaneer in the world that doesn't go with a rifle ready to hand while going through California. In Legion territory, raiders don't stand a chance. They send soldiers out to chase down anyone that bothers the caravans and the ones they catch get a bullet to the head on the spot or get hauled back to the nearest town or village and nailed up on a cross."
I had heard similar stories a few times before. The Legion supposedly had one of the best security systems around when it came to their roads and trade. The NCR was a little too lenient, in my own opinion, when it came to the raiders that were plaguing the roads and highways into and out of California and Nevada. I'd been called out to chase down a couple raiders and bandits myself, then criticized for shooting them down when they drew down on us and having to watch while the ones that we brought back were hauled away for trial somewhere back west. Those trials would usually take months, even years just to get started. Half the time they got off on some technicality or other legal mumbo-jumbo anyway.
"How about your husband? Was he a caravaneer too?"
"That's how we met. He ran the post in New Reno for the Crimson Caravan Company. We went over the trail a few times together before he died. He was a good man with a gun, but there's always someone better, isn't there?"
I sensed a little more to that than just a simple suggestion. I knew that I had the reputation of a man that was good with a gun, although it was not one that I had ever wanted, and I knew that there were some that thought of me as a bad man. That's not to say that I was thought of as a criminal or an evil man, but rather as a bad man to tangle with. I had killed my share of men, both in and out of battle, but I had never set out to kill any man in my life until I found my family back at the farm.
"How good was he? Your husband?"
"Pretty damn good. He was a sheriff in a few towns back east before we decided to come back to Nevada. He was a guard and a bounty hunter too, but he gave that up before I met him. I saw him in a few gunfights before he died and I covered him in a couple of them. I've taken my own share of men down too, but he was just plain beautiful when it came to gunplay. You remind me a lot of him."
"I've never tried to be a gunman. I was always just as good as I had to be."
"I saw you back there when the Legion ambushed us. I've never seen anyone get a gun out so fast in my life. The way you just stood there and plugged away at those guys was amazing. I was surprised that they didn't get you."
We went on down the trail toward town, stopping for a quick meal at an abandoned gas station near Helios One. We had coffee and bacon with some frying pan bread, then after scattering the remains of our fire and wiping out what few tracks we left behind we went on ahead. We stuck to the pavement for the most part, trying to avoid the rocky terrain, but we were wary of bandits and raiders and soon returned to the open desert. It grew hot as the sun climbed to its noon zenith, heat waves dancing across the horizon in a shimmering cloud across the Mojave. In the distance I could see Bighorners grazing on the sparse grass, two herds of about a half dozen or so each that were within view. Somewhere a Gecko called out into the desert and I could see Blowflies buzzing around at the mud pits a half mile or so from the road.
We got into Novac late in the afternoon, just as the citizens were coming in from the fields and scrap yards. Immediately I could sense a change in the feel of the place. A few of the men in town had been carrying guns last time I was here, but now everyone was carrying some kind of a weapon. Pistols were on every hip and more than a few people had rifles slung over their shoulders or carried in their hands, and I saw machetes or other bladed weapons on their belts or slung over their backs. Manny Vargas was up in the dinosaur on watch and Ranger Andy was in the old gas station with his Trail Carbine in hand. Dusty McBride was taking the evening feed out to this herd just as we came rolling up the road and I could already smell food cooking in Sally's restaurant. Craig Boone was nowhere in sight.
Jeannie May was as cheerful as ever when we came into the office and she handed me the keys to one of the bungalows. Using a stick I had picked up on the way as a crutch, I walked across the yard to the bungalow and all but collapsed into the bed. It was a sparsely furnished room; there was a bed and an end table to the right of the door, with a table and two chairs across the room. The bathroom was in the far corner and it had an aged bathtub, a working sink, and even a first-aid kit on the wall that was fully stocked. All in all, it was a pretty nice place.
I don't know how long I slept, but it had to have been several hours because when I looked at the window it was dark. I could hear the night insects singing and the distant sounds of Geckos hunting somewhere in the far-off hills. Moonlight shone through the curtains and cast eerie lines on the floor where the lamplight didn't reach. And for the first time I noticed that there was a lamp lit. It was burning on the shelf just above the table, casting it's light in a bright circle around the dining area, and at the table I could see steaming plates of food and Angeline setting out the silverware she'd brought from the restaurant. There were two plates on the table, each mounded high with mashed potatoes, greens, and a thick, juicy steak, and there was a coffeepot and two cups at the center of the table.
It bothered me a little that she had been able to get in without my knowing. All my life I'd been a man of caution and prided myself on my honed senses, and yet somehow I'd allowed myself to relax enough to let her get in the door and set the table before I realized that she was even there. I must have been more tired than I had realized to have let my guard down so much. The food smelled good, though, and I was starting to feel famished after the long ride today. I reached out to rise myself up out of the bed and felt a shot of pain go through my arm as I put pressure on it.
Angeline heard me groan and came to help me out of the bed, and I have to say that I have never felt more helpless in my life. The jarring ride in the wagon had taken it out of me all right, and the constant bumps had done no good for my wounds. The cut in my shoulder had almost healed completely, but my arms and leg were still sore and the leg was so stiff that I could hardly walk at the moment. With Angeline's help I got to the table and sat down, tired just from the small effort of crossing the room. She poured me some coffee and I drank it, loving the warm feeling of it and the strong taste that I recognized in good camp coffee. Sally McBride made one hell of a cup of coffee, and looking down at the steaks I could see that she was still a damn fine cook as well. We ate in silence, me enjoying every bite and savoring the taste of the fresh meat and potatoes and the crisp greens that had been grown and gathered in her own garden. Angeline ate her own food and I could see her watching me out of the corner of my eye.
She had that look that I'd seen in women before, but this was different. She was looking at me with something like pride, with a little bit of some other feelings mixed in with it. I knew that she liked me, and truth be known I was starting to like her, but it was too soon to be thinking about the things she was thinking about. She was a beautiful, strong, brave woman that would make any man that she wanted a happy man, but I couldn't be that man, not yet. We talked about some things for an hour or so while we sipped our coffee. The plates were piled on one side of the table to be taken back in the morning and the pot was starting to get low when there was a knock at the door. A glance at my watch told me that we'd talked away into the early hours of the morning and that it was far too late to be expected visitors.
Instinctively my hand reached for my gun, slipping the thong off the hammer and gripping it with my thumb poised over the hammer and my finger over the trigger guard. Angeline went to the door and I scooted my chair over so that I could see it, then after a nod from me she slowly opened it. There in the moonlight was the tall, striking form of Craig Boone, his red beret and aviator sunglasses catching the light and his massive form filling the doorway with his bulk. My hand left its place on the butt of the sixgun and I let myself relax a little.
"Coffee's still warm. Light and sit a while."
Boone came in and pulled up a chair and filled his cup. I could see right away that this wasn't the same man I'd spoken to on my last visit. His manner was much more stern than it had been, his powerful muscles were stiff and on edge, and the lines of his face were now deeply set. If he had taken off his sunglasses I have no doubt that his eyes would be sunken and show bags under them from lack of sleep. His work clothes had been replaced with his old sniper's uniform breeches, combat boots, and a weathered t-shirt, all of which were now dusty and stained with stale sweat. His rifle was leaning against the table now after he unsung it, and a finer weapon I had never seen. It was a Hunting Rifle, but in much better shape than many that I'd seen and with a special long-range scope attached. Both rifle and scope looked immaculate and I could detect just the slightest scent of gun oil.
There was a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his shirt sleeve, and after filling his cup he took it out and smacked it in his hand a couple times to loosen the smokes. He took one out and put it to his lips, then before he could reach for his lighter I lit a match on my thumb and lit it for him. He took a long drag and puffed out the smoke across the room, then took up his cup and sipped the warm coffee for a second.
"Ange said you wanted to see me," he said, "that you want to come with me when I look for Carla."
"I heard that you've already been looking."
"I couldn't go far. The town needs me here, or so they say. I followed the trail to the Wrecked Highwayman before I had to come back. There were seven of them, plus Carla and a few others. I'm not much of a tracker. I couldn't follow them any further."
"I'm a tracker, Boone. That's one of the reasons the Rangers came and got me. I can follow those boys across any terrain. Just give me a couple more days to heal up and I can go right along with you."
"I have to find her now. I've waited too long already."
"There haven't been any storms since the raid and the winds have been calm. Tracks can last a long time in the desert, especially in sheltered places and on trails. They'll be traveling slow and taking their time on the raid. We can catch up to them in a day or two once we get moving."
"They'll kill her if we get close."
"No they won't, and you know it. Slaves are too valuable to them to just shoot for no reason. They're on a murder and slave raid. They'll be loaded down with booty and captives, and there's only one place they could be going with them. Cottonwood Cove."
"How do you know?"
"Nelson is in shambles right now and Nipton is right on the front lines. Cottonwood is the only place where they can get anyone or anything out. The Dam has the river covered and Forlorn Hope has men on the shore that'll pick off anyone that tries to go to the Fort. They'll have to keep their captives in the Cove until things settle down enough for them to take them upriver."
"You're in no shape to travel, Weathers. I'll be moving fast and I can't be stopping to take care of your wounds along the way."
"I just need a couple more days of healing. I'm getting it back little by little. My wounds will heal and Doc Mitchell can get me some Stimpaks for the trail. Just another three days is all I should need."
For a while he sat there, puffing away on his cigarette and sipping his coffee. I refilled my own cup and offered the pot to Angeline, but she shook her head and I put it back on the table. As I watched Boone roll the idea over in his mind, I sipped my own coffee and did my own thinking. My mind went down the road and across the desert, following the probable route that the raiders would have likely taken. It was obvious to me that they would head for the Cove. There was simply no other place where they could be going. Nelson was on the frontlines and was still in shambles after the battle, Nipton was in ruins, and whatever camp they had set up out on the flats would be too small to support any number of captives. Cottonwood was safe, out of the way, and had direct access to the Colorado River and the Legion HQ at Fortification Hill.
A raiding party of any size would have to avoid NCR patrols and stay off the front lines, so they would have to cut westward toward Broc Flower Cave and then south toward Searchlight. There were game trails there where a group of men could pass almost without notice and leave little sign along the way, plus there would be game and edible plants for foraging. The legionnaires would eat better than the slaves, though. Legionnaires looked at their captives as little more than livestock going to market and very often would push them to their limits on the trail. Bad food, no rest, and little water would take a toll on Carla, although she would have it better than the rest since she was pregnant. Pregnant slaves were well cared for by raiding parties since their child could be either a future slave or concubine or a future soldier for the Legion. Either one would be considered precious.
That area down around Searchlight would be the hardest part for me. Up until then it was all relatively flat and open, but once we got close to the town and the mines it got pretty rough and rugged. I was getting my strength back little by little, but I'd have a hard time going over those hills and mountains. And I was sure that those ghouls and varmints were still all over the place down there. Sergeant Astor had probably been clearing them out, but he had only a few men, limited ammo, and right now would be smack in the middle of Legion territory and so would probably be stuck in and around his camp. Besides, nobody likes to have to put down their own men. Ghouls or not, those were still the men he'd served with and the people he'd lived with for years.
After a while Boone's cigarette gave out and he crushed it out in the ashtray, then reached into the pack for another. I took out the makings and rolled one for myself, struck a match and lit both our smokes. He was still rolling it around but I could see that the idea was growing on him. I was known for my tracking ability, as were most Rangers, and I knew the country better than he did after bringing Angeline and those kids across the desert. Not to mention that we'd be crossing enemy territory the whole way and an extra rifle would be more than a little useful. I knew he wanted to go right now, that he wanted to be gone the minute he heard of what had happened, but I also knew that he couldn't leave until now. The Legion was on the warpath now and they were all around the town. This was no time to have one of the best shots they had go AWOL on them. If my Jenny had been alive or missing after I found what was left of my home, I would have chased the bastards that took her across the face of the Mojave and not rested until I found her. He must be in some serious pain right now to have to wait so long, and now I was asking him to wait even longer. I'm lucky he didn't slug me just for the suggestion.
"Alright," he finally said, "I'll wait three days, but then I'm leaving with or without you."
"Sounds good. We can leave at first light."
"Alright. But I don't want anyone else to hear about this. Right now, you two are the only ones I trust. Her because she's form out of town and you because I know you hate the Legion as much as I do right now. I heard about what they did to your wife and family."
"Why don't you trust the others?"
"Something about this whole thing stinks. No one saw anything, no one heard anything, and no one seems to know anything. Andy was in the gas station and didn't see or hear anything and Sadie May, the bitch that owns this place, she's just smug about it like it's nothing. That was no attack. Someone just came in and took Carla away without much of a struggle. From what Ange said about those tracks, two men came in and left with her. I know my wife. She would've fought them off. She would've fought tooth, claw, and nail to get them off her. At the very least she would have screamed. I know she didn't like it here, but she hated the desert even more.
"I know what they're saying about us. They're saying that Carla left me for someone else and just took off. She loved me more than that. We had our problems at home and she wanted us to move back to the city, but she would never leave me. That baby is a new start for us. We're gonna have a family here. No matter what anyone says, she was taken."
"I believe you, Boone. We're gonna get her back. You have my word on that."
He got up then and picked up his rifle, and after we shook hands he just turned and left. He was a hard man, that Boone, but I could see that he was a good one. No man lives through the hell that he and I had been through without developing a hard exterior. Life and death are kissing cousins out here in the Mojave and no one survives for long in the desert without getting his hands bloody. He had been with First Recon at the Bitter Springs Massacre, then on the hill above Boulder City at the First Battle of Hoover Dam. He'd seen his share of blood and death and had come here looking for a new start, like a lot of men on the Mojave were doing, and now that start had been taken away from him. That old hatred was coming back over him, that lust for blood and battle that he thought he'd left behind. All of us had that thirst, every last man that had ever served out here and seen what the Legion and the other tribes did to the ones that stood in their way. Now our loved ones were in the path of that carnage and we both knew what we had to do. Me and Craig Boone, we had a lot in common.
Two days passed and I could feel myself getting better. Angeline brought me my meals and Doc Mitchell came by both days to check up on me. She gave me Stimpaks for the pain and to speed the healing process up. My wounds were almost fully healed by the third day of waiting and I was back on my feet after two. I slipped her some caps and a few of the Legion coins that I'd collected from dead legionnaires for some more meds and Stims. She asked what they were for and I just said that I was gonna be on my way before long and would need something for the pain. It was mostly the truth, and I didn't want to make myself a liar.
I kept myself busy those three days, since I had never been one to sit idle. I went to the reloading bench in the gas station and did reloads for whoever needed them, fixed a rifle for No-Bark, and put an edge on a couple of tools for the people in town. I walked laps around town in my off time, sat in the shade of the McBrides' house while Dusty and I talked about the range and the Brahmin. Dusty had apparently ridden for Hurricane Heck Gunderson back when he was just getting started in ranching back in California, then come east and fought Great Khans and the Legion to carve out his own ranch as one of the first residents of Novac. It was a pleasure to listen to the man talk, for it seemed like he relished the memory of those bygone days like any old adventurer would. Were he a younger man, I had no doubt that he would be the first to come out on that desert with me and Boone to track down that raiding party.
Boone came to see me on the evening of the third day. He was antsy and anxious to be out on the trail, but he was willing to wait until first light. I had cleaned my guns and filled the empty loops in my cartridge belt, but a good fine edge on my Bowie knife, and taken most of my bandages off my wounds once Doc Mitchell said it was okay to do so. The cut on my shoulder and the hole in my leg were little more than scars now, thanks to the Stimpaks and the good food I'd gotten here, but the wound in my shoulder was still bothering me. It hadn't completely healed on the inside, but the outside was mended well enough for travel. It felt good to have my rifle in my hands again and to back on my feet and ready for action. Even Boone thought I looked better, and he said as much.
"Thanks. It feels great to be useful again."
"We're leaving at first light. Just be ready to move."
"I will be. You won't have to look far to find me."
Once he had left I was alone with my preparations. That day I'd gone over to Briscoe's store and laid out for some Stims, a few boxes of .357 magnums, and enough Pork N Beans, jerky, and coffee to last a few days. We'd have to be moving fast and would have to rely on food that we could get without shooting, so I would have to ration what I had. My satchel was packed and ready to go and my belt was full of ammunition when Angeline came in, carrying her rifle and dressed for travel. She had a pack slung over her back and she wore a belt gun and a Combat Knife. I knew what she wanted, but she wasn't about to get it.
"I'm going with you, Dan."
"No you're not."
"You're in no shape to do this on your own, damn it! I'm going with you or you'll just go out there and get your fool ass killed. I've been out there on my own before and I can do it again. You know I can handle myself on the trail. And with this," she tapped the Hunting Rifle I'd given her, "I can knock the antennae off a Fire Ant from three hundred yards."
"That's exactly why you have to stay here. With Boone gone, they'll need a good man, or woman, up in that dinosaur. Those Legion rats are gonna be watching this place for another chance and there's raiders all around who would love to get at the booty that these people have. There's a gang of them camped out just down the road. You and that rifle are needed more here than out there."
"I just . . . I don't want you to get hurt, Dan."
"I'm a Ranger. Getting hurt is just part of the job."
"Don't pull that macho bull on me, Dan. You know what I mean."
"I know, and I don't want to see you get hurt, either. I know you can handle yourself and that you can shoot like the best of them, but you know how it is out there. Anything can happen out in the wastes, to anybody."
"All the more reason why I should be with you. Three rifles are better than two."
"Angeline, you're staying here and that's that! We're not talking about this anymore!"
"We are talking about it!"
"Angie, I . . ."
I turned to look at her and for the first time I saw that she had tears in her eyes. I had been packing the last few things into my satchel while we talked and had tried not to look at her, but now I could see that this was really getting to her. I knew that she cared for me more than she was saying, just as I did for her, but this was neither the time nor the place to bring feelings up. The both of us couldn't go out there into that desert tomorrow. One of us had to stay behind and watch over things. Besides that, having her around would just give me one more thing to worry about. Going along with Boone was bad enough, knowing that his life was in my hands, but having her would be too much. Boone and I were fighting men who knew the score, but she was a woman. More than that, she was a woman that I would forgive myself for letting something happen to.
"No one," she said as she wiped away the first of the tears, "no one has called Angie since my husband died."
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said it."
"I'm glad you did. I loved my husband, Dan. He was a good man and a brave one. I couldn't stop him from dying. He was shot down in the street by four slavers that he didn't even know were there. I had to watch him die forty feet in front of me before they raped and sold me along with everyone else in town. I don't want to go through that again with you.
"When you left here to go to Nelson, you said you'd be back. Then just days later I hear all hell break loose and then a stream of bloody soldiers come in saying that you'd gone down in a blaze of glory. I went there as soon as I heard that you were alive, I stayed by you all this time, and now you just want to go out and get yourself killed on someone else's hunt. Why?"
"Because he'd do it for me."
She tried to find something to say to that, but there was nothing she could say to get me to change my mind. The more she stood there trying, the more I knew that she knew it was true. Boone and I were cut from the same cloth. We were both fighting men through and through and when trouble came to our doorstep we were just the kind of men that would go after it hard and fast and with no mercy. My wife had been taken from me and I'd sworn revenge and now his had been taken and might be suffering at the hands of the very men that had slaughtered my family. He wouldn't sit still while she was out there and I wouldn't let him go off to get killed without at least trying to lend a hand. She knew our breed well, she had been married to a man just like us, and she knew that there was just nothing she could do to stop him from going or me from helping out.
"Damn it, Daniel," she said as she stepped in closer to me.
I had taken a couple steps toward her and now she came in close and put a hand on my vest, pulled me down to her level, and before I could react she was kissing me. It was a hard, passionate kiss, the kind that I had never thought I would get again, and she put all of herself into it. There was fire in those lips like I'd never felt before. She pulled me down and put her lips into mine so hard that it almost hurt, and for the life of me I just couldn't force myself to pull away. I had wanted to steal a kiss from her before but thought it was too soon after Jenny's passing. Maybe later, I kept saying, maybe later I'll kiss her and let her like me the way I knew she did. Now, I guess, that decision was out of my hands. I couldn't help but to kiss her back a little.
I don't know how long we kissed. It felt like hours when in reality it couldn't have been more than ten or twenty seconds at the most. However long it was, it was time well spent. I felt m hands go to her vest, then her arms, and as they started to curl around her I stopped finally stopped myself. This wasn't right, I thought, not right at all. She loved me and I was starting to get a liking for her, but this was much too soon. I pulled myself away and stood looking down at her, my hands on her arms and my eyes locked on hers as they started to tear up again. I wanted to say something, anything, but I just couldn't find the words.
Without a word, she twisted her arms from my hands, turned to the door, and then she was gone. My room felt dark and quiet again, although not in a good way. I could still feel her lips on mine and was cursing myself for a damn fool as I folded and neatly laid out my clothes for the next day's travel and then slipped into the bed.
"Women," I said to myself, "I swear."
The sky was just starting to get grey in the distance when I met Boone at the gas station. He was dressed in his old First Recon fatigues and had a military pack over his shoulders, his rifle ready in his hands and a Combat Knife on his belt. He threw down his cigarette as I came over and crushed it out with his boot.
"Yep. Let's get moving."
He took out his flashlight and made two quick flashes toward the dinosaur, then we were off. After a couple hundred yards I turned and looked over my shoulder at that big green tower, suddenly wondering who was watching our backs. Manny Vargas' shift didn't start for another couple of hours and Boone was here with me. I said as much.
"Ange is up there," Boone replied, "she wanted to see us off. She seemed a little pissed at you."
Suddenly I didn't feel quite so safe and I was almost glad when we got to the edge of rifle range and angled westward to avoid the raider camp we'd found. The night was cool and the wind rustled the brush, sifting sand over the desert and the trail down which we walked. The tracks were still there, only now starting to show wear, so it was easy to follow them on into the desert. I couldn't think of tracking now, though. My thoughts kept going back to a beautiful redhead in a Grunt outfit, fire in her eyes and passion in her heart. Yeah, I was about ten different kinds of a damn fool.