Chapter 2: Old friends
Long shadows slowly swallowed up the desert and the first stars were now clearly visible in the darkening sky.
The two lone soldiers allowed themselves for one more stop near an abandoned gas station before the evening set in. The place was crawling with radscorpions and they had to find some shade under the sparse foliage of mesquite trees instead. Words passed sparingly between them; general orders from Ruth without a syllable of conversation. Not like she didn't try sparking one, but the ever-drilling stare of her new partner quickly discouraged any further attempts. Ruth knew her first mission could be tough, but she certainly didn't expect… well, this silent treatment. Other than that, the march itself was peaceful. This area, already controlled by the NCR and lined with numerous trading routes of caravans, was a reasonably calm region. These roads were frequently patrolled by soldiers ever since they took over Camp Imperial, and most of the local raider gangs and mutants were either decimated or retreated into the mountains.
"We're almost at the caravan stop." Ruth cleared her throat, as her voice came out hoarse from disuse. "Should be around an hour from here. Keep your guard up, anyway, it's going to be real dark soon."
Amber didn't reply. She was carefully scanning their surroundings ever since they left the base. To their left the land fell abruptly and created a sort of shallow, expanding gorge. There were pieces of a crumbled road before them and wooden remains of some small house. The rest of the view consisted of a desert with numerous rock formations and small hills here and there, with mountains far into the east and west. They strained their eyes in the evening landscape.
The silence continued for a short while and Ruth accepted that she wouldn't receive any real response. That was why she almost jumped at the urgent voice of her companion a moment later.
"Wait. Did you hear that?" Amber said in a hushed tone, her hand shifting towards a pistol on her belt.
Both stopped in their tracks and stood, listening. For a moment she thought the redhead was playing her, looking for a distraction to finally jump at her. Those thoughts quickly dispersed as a familiar sound reached their ears.
The ringing of a bell, the kind of a bell attached to supply-carrying brahmins. Seemingly not too far from their position, however, there was no one else besides them on the road.
"A... caravan?" Ruth frowned and reached for her rifle. She gestured at Amber to follow her quietly and move towards the sound coming from somewhere in the gorge. They began crouching as they got closer to the edge of the rocky cliff before peeking over. Between the stone slopes there was a flickering light of a bonfire, illuminating a few objects and structures around it. She looked through her binoculars, adjusting the focus.
"Well?" Amber whispered impatiently.
"A few tents, two big carts, brahmins, crates, bags…" She paused. "And six people near the fire. From here it looks like a regular caravan's camp, all set up for the night."
"This close to the stop?" The other woman raised her eyebrow. "They must be in a hurry."
"If they were, then they'd still be moving. And it's not like they just started to set things up, they've been here for a couple of hours at least." There were cans or other rubbish thrown around the fire and from as far as she could see, the brahmins they'd heard had already trampled down circles in the ground around the poles the two-headed animals were tied to. She moved the binoculars towards the tents and strained her eyes, but in this light saw nothing else of interest.
"It's odd of them to stop here, but… maybe it was an emergency? Maybe something happened and they had to set up camp for tonight, sending someone ahead of ‘em?" She looked at the camp, puzzled. "Here." Ruth handed the binoculars to the redhead. She gave her a look, but peered through the glass for a few moments.
"I think they're raiders." Amber said flatly. "And even if they're not, we should check it out, anyway. That's our mission."
"Raiders, why? Makes no sense. They would've been long gone by now, having plundered every cap from their pockets, not leaving even a single brahmin's head breathing."
"So you're saying you know exactly what a raider would do, huh?" Ruth felt the green eyes of the other soldier drill into her, the ice-cold voice almost making her skin crawl. "Maybe they're your friends? Do you think you can use them to get rid of me, ma'am?"
"Don't push it, Dale." Ruth felt something inside her momentarily start to boil. She shot the other woman a warning glance, hoping she could see it in the now surrounding darkness. "Besides, knowing your enemy is an asset every soldier should have. You're right, we should investigate. We're going down there for information. If they're raiders, we'll make sure they're eating dirt tonight. If not, we help the caravaniers and lead them to the stop if needed. Understood, private?"
They stepped onto each rock carefully, quietly, trying not to cause a slide. Dry bushes scratched at their clothes and hands. The area was now almost completely dark, thanks to the stars and the light of the bonfire in front of them.
"Any ideas on how not to make them shoot us the first second they see us?" Ruth kept her voice down.
"Shoot them first, ma'am?" Amber smirked and grabbed her rifle.
"That's not very helpful." The short woman muttered. "I'll do the talking, you stay quiet unless they ask you about anything. Keep your gun at the ready if anything seems out of place, but we're not here to fight if we don't have to. And stop saying ma'am, you'll blow our cover."
"Whatever you say, pipsqueak." The redhead replied, smirking even more.
They kept to the shadows cast by the tents and piled up crates. One of the brahmins turned its one head towards them, but it only flicked its ear and came back to munching on the chain. As soon as they reached the nearest cart, they crouched behind it and peeked at the strangers. A few sat around the fire, one was making rounds not far from their position, from as far as she could see. Most of them had regular clothes with unmatched pieces of armor, much like caravan owners and their guards would usually dress. At first glance there was nothing unusual about them, they had to get closer. Ruth took a deep breath and stepped into the dim light of the bonfire.
"Hello? Anyone home?"
Heads turned. Guns clicked. A few silhouettes rose to their feet.
"Hey don't shoot, guys! Don't shoot!" She lifted her hands and gun in surrender, glancing at Amber to do the same.
"Who are ye?!" The person patrolling this edge of the camp called out in a harsh voice. Shadows covered his face, but from his presence they could see he was quite muscular and not the type to mess with.
"Easy there, big guy. We're not here to cause any trouble, alright?" Ruth tried her best to remain calm and kept her eyes fixed on the man. "We heard your brahmins from the road and noticed your camp. We figured something might've happened, that maybe you need anything, and decided to come and offer help just in case."
"And I should take yer word for it, yeah?" He grunted and stepped towards them.
"If we wanted to attack you, we'd do that from a distance." She smiled briefly.
"And if ya wanted to steal from us all sneaky and shit, ya would come closer."
"We don't want to steal anything, I mean, we're not even hiding…" She spread her arms.
"Which only means yer shit at sneaking." He earned a few laughs from his companions, who were now all standing with their guns ready.
The man stared at them for a moment, his fingers tapping on the shotgun in his hands. Even in the minimal light they could now see a series of scars running across his face. Her eyes darted towards the other people, trying to make out as much as she could.
This was not just regular equipment they were carrying. It were mostly rusted, jagged pieces of scavenged metal and self-made pipe pistols, even though most of the people seemed to be wearing caravaniers' clothes underneath.
Oh, this was not good.
She glanced at Amber, standing with her weapon to the side, tense and still.
"They look like traveling hookers to me!" Someone shouted from the camp, which brought about more nasty laughter.
"Listen, we're not here for a fight." Ruth said, trying to keep her nerves in check.
"If it were up to me, I'd just shoot ya and get back to my food." The mouth of the rifle moved from one woman to the other. "But the boss said to give every little shit like yas a chance. So here it is. What do ye want here exactly?"
"Like I said, you're camping near a trading route, not in the best spot, so we came to offer our help. Maybe looking for a place to spend the night." Ruth glanced at her partner, who nodded accordingly. The redhead kept her cool, her eyes jumped from him to the people in the back as well. "It's always safer to camp with a bigger caravan, especially with all the scorpions and other nasty wildlife out there-"
"Alright, that's enough, talk time over." He cut her off unceremoniously and closed the distance. A strong stench of alcohol, sweat, and whatnot, filled their nostrils immediately. "All of that sounds like bullshiet to me, girl. Are ya gonna tell us that yer lost, too? That ya need someone to hold yer hand when ya walk through the wasteland? Heh." The barrel of his gun poked her on the shoulder. He turned slightly to the campfire, but never took his eyes off of them. "Hey, boys... what do we do with ‘em?"
She almost felt the redhead next to her get ready for a jump, her own hands getting sweaty.
"If you don't want us here we'll just go and leave you to your business. How about that?"
"I think that's out of the question now, missy…" The man before them cracked a hideous smile. Two other men approached them from both sides, each with a gun pointed at them.
"I think I have an idea or two." One of them said with a nasty smile.
The situation was far from what she had hoped to achieve. Ruth realized she couldn't convince them now, no matter what she said, but she dragged them into this dangerous spot and had to pull them out somehow. Amber was just there, watching her fail and waiting for the call to pull the trigger. Maybe she didn't even need the call. The "no violence" rule was very quickly pushed aside and she tensed, ready to duck and grab her gun, but one voice broke through her thoughts.
"Alright, that's enough fun for now, you idiots."
The voice hit her like a lightning strike, coming from the small crowd gathered around the fire. Young, strong, and with much authority, as everyone seemed to have turned or otherwise reacted to it. "You're a sadistic fuck, they get it. Now bring them here, Face, and don't shoot them, for God's sake." The stinking man accurately called Face grumbled and cursed, then hurried them with his weapon.
This solved… something. But the voice didn't bring her relief.
She knew it. Ruth recognized that voice all too well. She went through a range of emotions all in those few seconds of struggling to walk forward. From hope, through happiness and anxiety to fear. This was impossible.
Hiding in the shadows until now, the man stepped forward. Ruth inhaled sharply at the sight of his face, now illuminated by the fire. Even though half of it was covered in black paint and a messy, thin beard, she would recognize him from a mile away. If it weren't for the darkness. Adrenaline poured in and a mix of emotions stirred inside her chest once more. There was something hypnotizing in this brief moment, as if she was dreaming, but knew there was something bad about to happen.
They stopped, now surrounded by the members of the questionable caravan, all glaring at them. The man's painted face tensed and his eyes widened as he studied them, especially Ruth, staring from head to toe. Some people exchanged impatient glances, wooden planks cracked in the fire.
"Well I'll be damned… Look what the cat dragged in." He finally said. To everyone's surprise, he cracked a smile and his tone changed from commanding to almost sweet. "Never thought I'd see that face again! Guys, we have a very special guest tonight, you can lower your weapons now."
Confused at the sudden change of atmosphere, the wastelanders reluctantly put away their guns. They seemed to glare at them with even more hatred now that someone took away their fun. The two soldiers lowered their arms as well, as the leader stepped towards them.
"You… you're alive. Holy shit you're alive!" Ruth almost whispered, unable to take her eyes away from him.
"Why shouldn't I be? Come here."
He closed the distance and embraced her.
She thought her heart stopped for a second as she stood there, mortified, enclosed in the embrace of the person she long ago presumed dead. Mixed feelings tugged at her soul. She would've returned the warmth, cried and laughed from newfound happiness, but this was not the right moment. Everything about it was wrong, and the burning stare of one person in particular reminded her of that all too well.
Ruth pushed the man away and turned to her partner, but there was no time left to act.
Amber, whose face was like a stone mask thus far blinked in shock, but her confusion lasted for only a second. Her eyes ignited with fury as she grabbed her shotgun properly and aimed it at the two. She was about to pull the trigger, but the weapon was forcefully flung upwards. One of the armoured men held her weapon and in the blink of an eye the rest of them jumped at her, prying the gun from her hands and forcing her onto her knees. Amber tried wrestling with the group, roaring like a wounded animal, but they held her tight.
"No, stop it! Don't hurt her!" Ruth took a step towards the bunch, but was held back with a strong squeeze on her shoulder.
In response, momentarily, one of her knives found its way up to the man's throat. There was a moment of silence, as both of them looked at each other surprised, but held their ground. Few people holding Amber noticed that and were visibly torn whether to stay or jump at her instead.
"Overprotective girlfriend there, huh?" The painted guy scoffed and then his smile vanished completely as he addressed his men, still looking at Ruth. "Disarm and keep her pinned." They deprived the redhead of her knife and pistol at once.
"Alan. Let her be. She's impulsive, but I'll make sure she behaves." Ruth resisted his gaze.
"Am I seeing things or didn't you notice she was about to shoot our heads off for a little show of affection?" He laughed, glancing at the struggling girl.
"You aimed at us first, even though we were not here for a fight. Make them let go of her. I will not ask again." Her hand squeezed the knife, her voice trembling just slightly.
"... Fine." Alan let go of her shoulder and took a step back, waving his hand at the pile of bodies. Though they backed away from the redhead, everyone stood their ground. The woman got back to her feet, breathing heavily, as her eyes were jumping between all the people gathered around her. "Besides, I did want to let you stay here, you know. Since you said you were looking for a place to camp and maybe help us with something… we'd find some free space. If you keep that under control."
Ruth sheathed her weapon and turned back at the redhead, but her furious gaze made her look to the side in shame.
"She'll behave, I promise." Ruth reassured him.
Alan smiled weirdly at that, then looked at his people.
"Great! You heard her. I guess our guests are staying tonight, so treat them as such. Jeff and Gary, you take the rounds. The rest of you, go back to your business." The caravaniers didn't object, just sent them looks and commented among one another. The small crowd dispersed shortly and the two soldiers followed Alan towards the fire.
They were in. Under close watch, holding onto a very thin thread of trust, but no real harm has come to anyone yet. Adrenaline kept pumping in her ears, the change of events so quick she still couldn't believe all of this was happening.
"You've been on the road, right? Sit down, help yourselves to the food." He gestured at the pieces of cloth spread around the bonfire and to a small grill with some meat roasting on it.
Ruth sighed quietly in relief as they took their places. She sat next to Alan, who grabbed a stick with chunks of food impaled on it, while Amber reluctantly took a place beside her. One woman was sitting across the fire, looking at them from under her hood. She was just trying to fix a broken chain with pieces of wire. Everyone sat there silently for a longer, awkward moment.
"So… Let's take a moment and catch up, eh? You're probably wondering how the hell I'm alive."
She felt something tighten in her stomach as he talked, studying her. Not here, not now… Ruth clenched her fists and played on, as Alan continued with his story.
"As you can see I ended up with this little caravan." He handed them what looked like iguana bits. Both refused, Amber glanced at him in disgust. "I spent months dragging myself around the desert looking for a decent life, after, you know, ending up with nothing and having to run for my life. Again. It was tough, but I was lucky. I met this one caravan looking for new guards and eventually got more and more into the business. It's not so bad, really." He took a bite. "Want to trade anything, just ask. Right, Emily?"
The hooded woman didn't react right away, only looked up again after Alan cleared his throat.
"Oh, right, yeah. We've got... all sorts of stuff." She said a bit startled. Her voice sounded as if she'd smoked a whole carton of cigarettes this evening.
Ruth and Amber exchanged glances. "Well, that's a shame we haven't met earlier. I've traded with a lot of merchants in the area, so has she. Besides, we were told there was a caravan stop nearby, where we could find shelter." Ruth studied his face every now and then. "Why didn't you go there with the rest of the traders? It's close enough."
"We wanted to stop there, but apparently there are too many caravans already, no place to set up our camp." He casually took a bite of his snack, then tossed the stick into the fire.
"You've got quite a big team, actually." Ruth remarked. "What's your route?"
"Goes all the way from New Vegas to here. I first joined them halfway to The Strip. Right now we're going between towns in the area. You're right, it's weird that we only met just now." His dark eyes rested on her for a bit. "And what about you? Still got those knife moves I see."
It occurred to her that they didn't discuss their cover-up professions or stories as a team. They were supposed to discuss it on the road, but it completely flew over her head after their fight back at the base. Ruth cursed in her thoughts and chose her words carefully. She felt like sitting between two ticking bombs, or two enraged deathclaws.
"I… After the incident I wandered around without much of a plan. I had a few minor jobs, got some caps to have something to drink for. Eventually I found Amber in one of the settlements and we decided to set out here together." She gestured at her partner, who kept staring at the woman across from them. "First time we're that far north."
"I'm a mercenary." The redhead replied dryly. "I get hired to protect caravans, sometimes to eliminate some unwanted people here and there and I hunt raiders in my spare time." She shifted her cold gaze at Alan, who seemed rather unamazed by her short story.
"Not bad." There was a hint of mockery in his voice.
Ruth looked around while they were chatting. She could tell that the whole caravan look was a joke. Nothing about this group felt right. Even though it was dark, she saw what her partner was staring at, something she'd also noticed before in the clothing of others. There were hints of gang markings covered by patches or extra bits of clothing on their armor and guns. Not a marking that she recognized, though.
"Hey, Thorn!" Someone called from beyond the circle of light around the fire. "Can you come here for a moment, we have a… situation."
"Please excuse me for a moment." Alan said standing up. "This won't take long."
Ruth followed him with her gaze as he marched away between the tents, then turned back to Amber. "Are you ok? They jumped at you pretty hard-"
"What do you carry in this caravan?" The redhead ignored her, instead focusing on the woman called Emily.
"You know, stuff." She rasped back with a shrug. "I'm just here to shoot things, boss handles the business part."
"Water? Food? Chems?" Amber continued asking.
"None of your business." The woman finally growled and got up making a show of checking her rifle. "We don't like people asking questions around here"
"Do you treat all of your potential customers this way?" Amber smirked at her, getting an even deeper frown from Emily.
"Easy. We don't want to cause trouble again." Ruth glanced at the redhead sternly.
Amber wanted to reply, but their host was just coming back to the fire and she turned around, muttering a curse under her breath.
"Sorry about that, ladies." He said sitting back down. "Where were we?"
"So, uh, what about that free guest space for us?" The small woman asked, forcing a smile.
Alan nodded and turned to the rows of tents behind them. "Follow me." Two of his men joined them.
Walking across the camp, there was more and more evidence confirming the darker side of the so-called caravan. Looking at the people up close it was obvious they were gang members who tried to dress as traders and failed miserably at keeping the hints of their identity hidden.
Before they reached their designated tent, Ruth couldn't help but wonder. The sudden reality of meeting him triggered a few bittersweet memories that now appeared clearly before her eyes: familiar faces teaching her a game of caravan, overlooking the desert from the hilltops accompanied by the sounds of guitar and crackling of the bonfire, bandaging each other's wounds after training, the hasty escape through the mountain hideout... For a brief moment the feelings of nostalgia and guilt hit her, catching her off guard. She shook her head and was quickly brought back to reality when she noticed Amber frowning at her. They were right at the tent. The man followed them inside while the other two guards stayed behind. The tent only contained some rags serving as makeshift beds and a few empty cans. There was a kerosene lamp hanging under the ceiling which attracted tiny insects now flying around it.
"Sadly, it's only bed - without breakfast." Alan gestured around the tent. "Make yourselves at home." Only now in a better light, they could see his features clearly. His hair was shaved off on the sides, leaving a messy bush in the middle. The paint looked hastily put on, beginning at one of his eyes and trailing down his cheek. He had brown, almost black irises, matching well with the paint. There was something disturbing in those eyes, something that made a shiver run down one's spine. Despite all that, though, Ruth couldn't help but feel almost at home while looking into them. She found it hard to avert her gaze from him, and mentally kicked herself for doing so.
"Thank you." She cleared her throat, not knowing what else to say.
"No problem. Now, is there anything else you need, Dancer?" He smiled as the sound of the silly nickname made her tense up. Using the moment of surprise, he flirtatiously trailed his finger along the edge of her jaw, but Ruth tilted her head to the side before he touched her lips. To her great annoyance, she felt a familiar tingle somewhere inside the stomach.
"No, that's enough. We'll be fine." Ruth sent him a scolding look, but couldn't help her cheeks from flushing slightly in red. Very unprofessional. Very stupid. What was she even doing?
Amber rolled her eyes, comically pretending to have a gag reflex.
"Good. Find me if you have any questions." Alan nodded at the two guys to leave and turned to the entrance as well. "Oh and please, do not go too far from your tent. The crew really values their privacy, and we don't want to find our goods, unpaid for, in your pockets."
As soon as he left the tent and the heavy footsteps of his guards were gone, Ruth turned around and unholstered the pistol from her hip. She checked it and handed it to Amber.
"Take this, they won't give you your stuff back so eas-" She didn't get to finish the sentence. In a heartbeat, her own gun was aimed at her head. She held her breath, her eyes fixed on the barrel.
"Give me a good reason not to execute you here and now for treason, Dancer." The redhead said coldly, putting as much venom into the nickname as possible.
"Amber, I know exactly how it looks." Ruth replied slowly, looking her in the eye. "But you'll have to believe me that I'm doing everything for the sake of the mission. I'm with you in all this."
"So far the evidence appears to contradict that." The redhead frowned.
"Listen, I got us in. From here we can continue and learn something about this set up, why they're here, what's all the pretending for. They have to have a good reason to play stupid like that. We stumbled into something big and we have to figure it out together." The smaller woman explained. "Plus, I just trusted you with my own gun and it wasn't in an act of suicide, okay?"
"And what about him?" Amber motioned at the entrance. "I didn't come here to watch a sappy love story."
"He's… an inconvenience right now. A person I know from another life. And not a life like this. I have to find out what's going on here myself." Ruth sighed and lowered her voice. "Besides, if you shoot me now, everyone in this camp will jump at you again and they won't be too quick with killing you for it. Please, it's not worth your life."
A longer moment passed as the two women stared each other down, Amber's hand not shaking once.
"Those are the Tombstones, one of the biggest and well organized gangs in the area." Amber finally said through her teeth. "Not only did you manage to convince them not to shoot us, but it turns out you actually know a guy who appears to run this group. You really expect me to believe when you say you‘re not one of them?" She lowered the gun and turned on the spot. "I think I'll take my chances with whatever lurks in the darkness, with you I might just as well wake up with a knife in my back… or worse."
"No, damnit! You got this all wrong! And what are you planning to do by yourself, huh?" She got no response as the redhead left the tent. "Fine! Get your stupid ass filled with radscorpion stings."
Ruth stomped one of the empty cans, denting it. She had to quiet down the storm in her head. Walking in small circles around the tent and thinking of a plan worked for a moment, but her mind kept coming back to the images of angry Amber, and most prominently, the face of her old friend so different from the one she so wished to see. She shook her head and pushed the flap of the tent aside.