The air was cool when he woke. His face was damp. Caius touched his nose and met wet cloth, pulling it away so he could feel the night breeze. It was then he realised how sunburnt he was. He had worn a helmet and dust scarf for so long he had lost his tan, and paid for it now. His skin felt like old leather poorly oiled.
"You'll peel badly but I think you'll miss out on blisters. They're such fun." The woman in the hat sat by a metal box with a grill; a camping stove he recognised. The only other one he had seen had been loot discarded as wasteful bulk when a camp fire would do. Two pots rested on the limited cooking space. She stirred them alternately.
"Are you a healer?" Caius asked, mopping his face. His arms itched. He was happy about that. The sick numbness that had palsied his limbs had gone. The stings hurt when the dressings rubbed against them but he could bear that far, far more easily than the prospect of being maimed.
"Nope, just the chica who rolls the bandages." She answered lightly, ladling liquid out of one of the pots into a mug and handing it to him. "Nuka tea. Best thing for heatstroke. Drink that and keep drinking until you have to pee. Then I can give you something to eat."
Caius sipped the warm liquid. It was sweet with a background herbal bitterness. It went down easily and she gave him another before taking a mug to the unconscious man. She knelt, propping him up against her so she could use both hands to get the tea into him. He could still swallow though his mouth was lax. Most of the fluid ran down his chin despite her efforts. The legionary had seen many dying men. He was certain he was looking at another one now.
"Why are you here?" Caius rasped, trying to clear his throat without coughing. He did not trust his stomach yet not to rebel. He had been dehydrated before. It was a common risk on long marches. The febrile cramps and disorientation would pass within a few hours, if he were patient. She settled the man before replying.
"Bad luck. Some stupidity." She sighed, resuming her seat by the camping stove. "We were heading to New Vegas but were turned away at Sloan. Got back to Primm fair enough but between the new bloody gangers and the old bloody Vipers, we had to swing off the road." She rubbed the back of her neck wearily. "Swung too far. Ran into a beastie out of Jack Rabbit Springs. One of the spitting ones. It got Hank."
"Your father?" He looked to the comatose man, thinking her care of him could not be solely that of an employee. There was no slavery in the NCR so no duty between servant and master, no loyalty except through blood ties. She was old enough to be a wife but too young to belong to Hank, Caius considered, though if he was a rich man he might have bartered for her.
"Uncle Hank works for my dad." She gave him a look he found difficult to interpret. Was she warning him she had family to avenger her? Had he said something to make her suspicious? "My name's Ann, thanks for asking."
"William Cutter." Caius gave her the name he had seen on the dog-tags of a NCR soldier. His first kill. He did not know any other suitable pseudonyms. She did not wear any tribe marks and his Latin name would make his allegiance obvious. "Only Ann?"
"Temperance Dunn." Ann introduced herself fully as he had given his surname. "Ann for short." All that got her was a nod. No jokes. That was a welcome change, and she had got off lightly considering some of the names bestowed on her childhood friends. Poor Pulchritude had not been happy with her name particularly once puberty had been generous to her.
He held out his mug and she refilled it, noting his hand shook. Will was making a good show of it but once the Mojave got its teeth into you it was hard to shake off. He wouldn't be fit to trudge for another couple of days, unless he had some place he really needed to be.
"Why are you here?" She returned his question to him and got a hard look for her trouble. Ann met his gaze giving him a bit of raised chin because it had been a civil damn question she'd answered when he'd asked it.
"I am lost." Caius gave the short reply then bought himself time to think of more explanation by taking a long swallow of tea. "I was travelling... north... with friends. A deathclaw attacked us." It sounded feeble to him but she nodded in acceptance.
"They've nested in the quarry at Sloan. That's why we were turned back. The road's shut down." No one had been happy about that. The detour added almost a week to their journey. But as Hank had put it, better a long walk than a short life. "Fucking Powder Gangers."
"Why the profanity?" He was not accustomed to such a foul tongue on a woman. Though, Caius had to admit to himself, he was not accustomed to any sort of tongue from a woman. He had been a legionary since he was old enough to hold a spear. He did not have rank yet for a wife and such slaves as he had used had not been used for conversation.
"They stole all the dynamite from the quarry. It's their fault the monsters moved in. It was bad enough when they took over the jail but now they're running fucking amok!" Ann heard her voice rise shrilly. She cut herself off before she hit rant. Rage is fuel. Her dad said that a lot. It worked better for him. She wanted to scream until she ran out of swear words then learn some more.
"The NCR does nothing?" Caius ventured cautiously. Having intel to report might mitigate the charge of desertion he would certainly face on his return. She laughed so hard she knocked off her own hat. Underneath her hair was the orange of new copper, braided tight to her head.
"They do what they always do. Talk a big show and fort up until someone else fixes the problem or a politician sees a god damned expense report." Ann caught her hat before it blew away and fanned herself to cool her temper. Will was giving her the cold eyeball again. "Sorry if that offends. My dad moved his caravan business out here because the NCR taxes were killing us. Bit of a sore spot."
"I am not offended." He was interested. She was garrulous enough that he might obtain a great deal of information from her though it was unlikely to be of significant tactical worth. Caius was aware many of the traders and couriers who crossed the Mojave were in the employ of the Legion. He considered her over the rim of his mug. "Why so generous to a stranger? It is not expected in this miserable place."
"You want the truth or something that doesn't make me sound pathetic?" Ann knew exactly why she had let the dusty, ragged, wounded man into her bolt-hole. And it was wretchedly stupid. His expression suggested he had a headache. She eased back on the banter. "I grew up in a bunker. People everywhere, no personal space. I don't like being alone. Really do not like it."
They both looked at the silent form of Hank, lying still where she had left him. As silent as the grave. Ann spoke first.
"I don't know what else to do for him. I gave him all the RadAway we had." She pressed her lips together in a firm line, willing herself to think of something to help her friend. Anything. There had to be a solution. It couldn't just end like this.
"He has no wounds." Caius heard the unasked question and approached the man to see what might be done. He touched one of the weathered hands. A man of work. Hard work, from the scars and leanness. Not out of place in the Legion except for the tobacco stains on his calloused fingers.
"The bastard thing didn't get close enough to us. Just scared the hell out of me and Bessie with its tongue-tentacles. Hank got a few shots off at it while we ran then he caught up. He was covered in slime. I had to bury his clothes." Ann wished they'd been carrying stimpaks. Even one would have helped. But there wasn't enough income to tie it up in such high value goods.
"Bessie?" He asked as he pressed his fingers into the clammy skin over the carotid pulse. The scant heartbeat was difficult to find. It told him nothing other than the man still struggled. Caius looked up, catching the woman's gesture to the dead brahmin.
"She collapsed just as we got here. I don't think she'd ever run in her life. She fell over then Hank was on the ground too. So I forted up." Ann shrugged hopelessly. She couldn't leave and she couldn't send anyone for help. "I did everything Dad said always to do then the fucking geckos showed up."
"More will come for the carcass." He met her eyes. It was too dark now for him to see their colour though he guessed they were light to match her hair. Without the bandanna, she was pale, unpainted. Caius did not know if that was unusual. All the profligate women he had seen had been garish whores.
"I gutted her." The act had been more difficult than she had expected. Ann had killed livestock before and dressed them, but she had known Bessie for as long as she could remember. The old girl had plodded along with whatever prospecting team her Dad could get going and he had kept her for sentimental reasons once he'd got enough to start his own caravan company. "Covered her in turpentine. It'll slow down the rot and keep away scavengers."
Something in her expression told Caius if he chided her for wasting the meat, she would not take it well. If she had been his slave... but she was not. He needed her until he was fit to leave. And other than being maudlin, she had done nothing to merit castigation. The legionary wondered if he was making excuses not to argue with her because she had been kind to him.
"If he were mine, I would kill him." His words were not as eloquent as they would have been in Latin. Caius could not explain why he would have given mercy to a comrade or why he thought it only decent for her to do the same without telling her more than he wanted her to know. He straightened, ready for her tears. Anyone who had mourned a beast would surely weep for a friend.
She did nothing more than look at the boxes around the camp. He thought she was staring blankly until he noticed her mouth move. Then he thought her praying until he realised she was counting. Doing a stock-take now?
"I can give him another day. There's water enough for us to stay for that long then get to the Outpost." Ann knew she was putting off making the final decision. But Hank deserved another day. He might shake off whatever was wrong with him. Even if he didn't, he had earned the chance.
"The Mojave Outpost?" Caius asked, to change the subject. If they were that close to a NCR base he was very fortunate to have found that suitcase in the wrecked car. The clothes were dirty but they were not Legion red.
Ann pulled out her map, bringing it over to the camp stove so they could see. It was the size of a pillowcase, which in fact it had been. Her mother had embroidered little squares marking all the settlements along the old highways. She had added the locations of all the water sources they knew and little symbols for safe camp-grounds, copied from the scrap maps all sensible traders kept.
"We're here." Ann pointed to a bit of undyed cotton between little symbols that looked like a dog, a double ring and square with a red border that had the name 'nipton' sewn beneath it. "The 'Post is here." She moved her finger to a thick black line of stitching that intersected with another black line. Following that, she ended at a square with a teddy bear symbol above it. "That's where the Long 15 finishes. Or starts, depending on your politics."
"This 'nipton' is close." Caius stared at the map, etching it into his memory. He could see names he recognised to the east. No legionary would ever forget Boulder City. Placing that ruin meant he could reckon where their scouting had taken his contubernium and how far he had gone vagus.
"Nipton is a hole. I promised my mom we wouldn't go there. It's rough. Full of chem-heads and really cheap whores." Ann had no serious qualm about anyone who worked horizontal. In a clean place it could be a good way to get caps. But even radroaches avoided Nipton. "Hank and I were going to walk on by in the early morning while everyone was still sleeping it off."
Her expression made Caius smile. She looked as cunning as a stunned molerat. Sneaking past the profligates sunk in their debauchery was an acceptable tactic, though the dying man would have had to be particularly watchful. Women were a valuable commodity. Judging from the maternal injunction, her parents were aware of the dangers.
"Why is it only you and he?" The Mojave roads were not safe. NCR were lax and let filth prey on travellers. Land so poorly governed deserved to be lost.
"Don't get me started. It's a damn jeremiad." Ann folded up her map carefully stowing it away inside her coat. "We used to run four solid as caravans, two guards on/off, with Dad, Mom, Hank and my brother For prior 'scription."
"Your brother for?" Caius knew the word 'jeremiad' from the Malpais Legate. It came from the New Canaanite holy book and meant a lengthy written lamentation. But when she became agitated, her accent thickened making it difficult for him to follow her slang.
"Sorry. My brother's name is Forthright. Old bunker tradition." She explained as usual. Will did not seem to marvel at it. Ann poured them both a mug of nuka tea and clarified further. "We lived in a storage complex under what had been a big library. All the tunnels were packed with books. Everywhere books. So when it came to naming a baby, the parents opened a dictionary at random and that word was the name."
Caius nodded to signal understanding. Before his tribe had been conquered, their names had come from the first thing the new mother had seen on leaving the birthing tent. That had changed under Caesar. His name had come from a book too. It seemed a sensible way of choosing. The priestesses would call it propitious.
"So four caravans, owned outright, each with a guard walking and a guard riding. Meaning someone was always fresh for night watch." Ann recapped and got another nod. "That was a couple of years ago before shit started running downhill." She stared at her drink then at the stars. Neither provided counsel. "The bunker air filters failed. We didn't know until half of us came down with a god-awful bacterial pneumonia. We had to leave, which meant living in the NCR proper. Which meant paying taxes. Lots and lots of fucking taxes. And conscription. My brother was hauled off by some army asshole when he turned eighteen."
She went quiet, staring at nothing.