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Title: Clearing the Board (2/2)
Author: MustInvestigate
Disclaimer: I only own action figures
Rating: R for sex and violence
Pairing: F!Courier/Benny
Summary: Sequel to Incoming/Outgoing: Grabbing the King Fink crown of Rat Mountain...for a big-leaguer like Benny, how hard could it be?

part 1 - part 2



It’s how he remembers it. How true that makes it… His head had been fit to bust, among other things, and there’d been something, that little scrape with his boys and hers. Her mooks, probably today still walking the scrap walls around his other lady, the one dressed in pre-war neon and dreams instead of nylon, eyes peeled and trigger fingers cocked for the sight of his fine hide.

Reno can’t even pull together scrap walls, wide open streets begging any weed to tumble in. There’d been some eager greenbacks, at first, helping little old ladies across the street and shooting brahmin-thieves in the back, as if there was a popularity contest they could win. But even they blew out six months ago, retreating to the bosoms of their mothers and sweethearts with the rest of the soft NCF fucks.

He should be grateful. The wide open streets and closed eyes had let a deposed ruler slink inside in a dead man’s schmoe-skin suit and spin a web around the east side, but the casinos stink of desert trash who make fiends look like the White Gloves. It isn’t Vegas. It’s barely Nipton, and that after that Vulpes pansy spiffed up the joint.

That’s the first thing he’ll change. He’ll blow the Bishop fortune on real walls, slabs of concrete that’d make a Vaultie clutch her genuine reproduction pearls, and his own army of mooks to patrol them.

He’s worked out the perfect uniform for his personal security detail, a classy number sacrificing neither armor nor cleavage, when he spots Chin heading down Virgin Street. When he shouldn’t be out on any street, reminding every damned soul with a nose that Reno’s got an expert brewer of drugs and poisons.

He moseys after Chin, shoulders hunched in the “nothing to see here” patois of Reno’s uglier streets. It’s left a near-permanent ache in his spine, slouching where he’s used to throwing his weight around, but it’s better than a knife in the back.

Most days.

“Chin, baby,” He throws an arm around the little man’s shoulders and leans in, close as lovers, and breathes through his mouth. Chin stinks of his lab, a scorched shed in the middle of an oozing dump past the bighorn tanneries that’d make a Pip-boy take a drum solo. “Thought you were real under the weather. So far under, you weren’t gonna get outta bed until I said you were better?”

Chin twitches. “Goin’ stir-crazy, Pitch. Had to get out. Hear what the crowd’s askin’.”

“Same things people’re always asking round here. ‘You smell that?’ ‘Are those my teeth or yours?’ ‘How’s Pitch keep his hair so perfect in this heat?’”

“The old man…”

“Is gettin’ buried today.”

“And when his boys figure out who – ”

“An old man’s heart gave out. That’s life, baby. No one’ll question it.”

Of course they question it, but with the Wright estate suddenly fallen under the care of an heir who has to take off his shoes to count up his fingers…Bishop’s not going to question his luck. He’ll strike. And Benny’s little bird in the Shark will sing on when and where, and then…

He’s got a few plans, depending on Bishop’s move. But all of them end with that nobody, “Pitch,” the blow-in who’s been so careful to keep his head down, taking out two of the three families in one sweep and moving in his own crew.

And then killing those losers off and hiring a real crew. He misses his boys, even the dumbest mugs who couldn’t patrol the bullpit without losing half their ammo to light-fingered Strip rats. It’ll never be Vegas, but…

He shies away from the thought automatically. Not because it hurts – and damn, but it burns worse than taking a piss, every time a news bulletin splashes over the town and for weeks no one talks of anything but Free Vegas, that NCR couldn’t take, that the goddamn Legion choked on, where a man could carve out his own life with the kiss of a goddess on his forehead – but because Reno can sniff out any dream and crush it to split-up atoms.

If they stood to make a lifetime of caps on his bounty (or is it just a passport into Free Vegas by now, he’s often wondered), even his crew would turn on their boss “Pitch” in a heartbeat, hand him over to those Brotherhood fucks who patrol as far north as Jackass Flats now, according to the trader who paid for his drinks last night.

At least until he owns this shithole, and points all its guns to the southeast. And once he does…

…he can never leave.

But who cares? He’ll re-make Vegas in the west. He’ll build an Old World skyline that’d make old Not-At-Home fry his batteries. He’ll star in every Globes holodisk instead of just laundering his chips through the studio.

Who needs Vegas?

“I need a drink,” he interrupts Chin’s nervous babble. “And a cigarette. You got either?”

“I got nothin, Pitch, you know that,” Chin whines, loud enough anyone with a little profitable murder on their mind – and that’s every man, woman and child in Reno –takes them for the fast track to Brokesville. His voice drops to a whisper no less grating. “Unless you got a cravin for dicks, brother?”

“Dix” is a Chin specialty, equal parts vodka, Psycho, and something the little man had found in a deep bunker that glows in the dark even dried out and – carefully – ground into powder. Wherever it comes from, the goo replenishes any volume removed with such enthusiasm that Chin sneaks it into every product he sells, just to keep from drowning on the dry land of his shack.

Benny rubs his chin. Dix looks close enough to Psycho, at least in bright sunlight, that he can probably flog it to some junkie on the way out of town. If he takes it into his head to leave town quick, and can’t get to one of his stashes first. “How much you got going spare?”

“Two pricks,” Chin replies, eyes narrow as chip slots. “Why you tryin to hustle me, buddy? Lemme guess, shit’s hit the fan and you’re gonna blow out and leave us holding the bag?”

He really hadn’t been kidding himself about the Reno mind-reading trick. No, he tells himself, no. Vegas is nowhere. Vegas is history. There is no Vegas.

“Buddy!” he tightens his grip on the little man’s shoulder. “You and every other schmuck here owe me enough caps to cobble Easy Street – you think I’d run away from a debt in my favor?”

Chin tilts his head, blueish lips pursed. “On the house, then. You find it scratches the itch, maybe we can work somethin out in bulk. Probably want to jam a belt in your teeth before you shoot, though. Gertie near swallowed her tongue her first time.”

He’s careful of the points, tucking them away in a pocket under his arm, and cuts Chin loose with a warning. “Back to bed, son. A man could risk his death, up and around with what you’ve got.”

No, he can’t think of Vegas. It’s off the map. It’s bright lights all night long and clean hot water and food that doesn’t fight back up your throat and dames that throw in the smiles for free and –

No.

No, he’s wiping all that right outta his brain, because it’s Reno here on out, remade into what Vegas coulda been, shoulda been. But that town is past, baby, nowheresville in the rear view mirror.

No.

No, that night he hadn’t been thinking about anything but getting her back to his place. The first time in months his mind wasn’t on the chip, dreaming about the 38...for that alone he’d have thanked her. When he woke up stuck to the sheets with a head like a deathclaw’s hangover and realised she’d mickey finn’ed her way into his pants, he damn near loved her.

* * *

“You were gonna take me out with a bang?”

Her long body was warm against his back and sharp in the toes, digging into the soft part of his foot as she stretched them.

“Killing you was Plan B. You heard Plan A. You, me, the team, the fuck outta Dodge. Fight our way to Utah, maybe. There’s a Tar Walker who owes me one.” A sigh in his ear, the steady, meditative motion of her fingers around his cock stilling. “No one thought it’d work, but I’d have preferred to. For a little while, at least.”

He nudged her with his hip and replied flippantly. “I like Plan C. Plan C gets my vote.”

“Pretty sure even C ends with one of us dead by morning.”

After a quiet minute, she picked up the rhythm again, slide, squeeze, release, like she could keep at it all night. He wrapped his hand around hers and pumped harder, faster.

* * *

But that was after. After a couple bottles and a pack of cigarettes to chase away the brass bands she’d slammed into both their heads. After the best day’s sleep he’d had in months. After the knives in her boots, the spiked knuckledusters under her beret, the piano wire looped around her waist, the one-shot derringer neatly duct-taped into the curve below her breasts, carelessly thrown to the carpet one by one. After finding that stretch of soft skin along her forearm, like the sun hadn’t touched it in months, where dragging his nails made her squirm and huff like a dry piston.

Why the hell is Chin out on the street?

The thought itches. Chin has a rat’s sixth sense for a sinking ship, and a seventh and eight too when the wind’s right.

Nothing to get his hair mussed over. Not like his own nose for trouble has ever been blocked up.

He’s got an hour before his canary at the Shark will be on break, waiting in the alley. Plenty of time to swing by his hole in the wall and double, triple-check his main stash of caps is still locked up tight.

He takes the long way to the pre-war hotel where his windowless room had probably started out as a broom closet before working its way up to deluxe accommodation. It’d still cost him every cap he stole, swindled, and murdered out of other travellers on the road from Vegas. Everything he’s got in there could fit in his pack with room to rattle. Maria’s already in his holster, her beautiful and too damn distinctive face shrouded in protective tape. The rest – ammo, scotch, lunchbox full of Med-X, a few Sunset Sarsaparillas he’d surprised himself snatching off a brahmin pack for eight caps apiece, his little fortune – he could move fast with that on his back. Not that’ll he’ll have to. He won’t even bother to move them into his deluxe suite in the Shark.

The Shark Club was the closest thing to a classy dish in Reno’s loser buffet. Bishop’s men tossed out the drunks and fiends the very second they ran out of chips and slopped grey water over the splatters and stray eyeballs littering the bullpit every dawn. Still, the front sign was picked out in neon and the stakes went higher than any other house on that laughable excuse for a strip.

The Shark was gonna be his place. It was his second choice, sure – what mug aims to be the classiest bloatfly on a brahmin-dump like Reno? Not this guy. The first plan was just to hit it hard for every cap he could squeeze, be just some schmoe who rounded the bases with Lady Luck one night and blow west until he ran out of land, somewhere he could spend it all.

That night’s on his mind while he detours around a high warehouse near his place, decides – for no reason at all – to climb to the roof first and get a bird’s eye on his joint.

* * *

He’d been careful – a skill finally hammered into his thick skull when that sniper round shattered his ankle a hair away from a clean getaway – and spent a week on the Shark’s slots, making sure to lose as much as he won. At the end of it, he was sure they were all rigged the same as his at the Tops, with sensor modules inside that regimented payouts and, more importantly, sent out a signal when they got close to a big payout. He’d rigged every machine in the Tops himself, sometimes guiding a discouraged high roller to “the luckiest slot machine in the joint!”, more often ordering one of the boys to take a break from gooning and hit the slots, or just positioning himself near enough to congratulate the big winner, encourage him to invest that haul on the roulette wheel or, failing that, walk his winnings down a nice dark alley on the way outta town.

Y’know, the personal touch.

The Shark used a different frequency, and he didn’t have his old receiver anyway, but he’d yanked one of their sensor modules during a particularly dismembering difference of opinion in the bullpit that smashed open three machines and, more importantly, kept the croupiers’ eyes off him and his quicksilver hands. A little delicate work with a pointy rock and he had himself a primitive detector, one that hummed in sympathy when he got within a man’s length of the signal.

He’d taped it in his oily merchant’s cap and made a slow turn of the slots, cool as a cucumber when he finally heard that wild-dog whine through his skull-bones next to a corner machine. Bad place to make a stand, facing the wall, no way to see the rest of the room without twisting his head like some nervous chump looking to get pinched. He slid without hesitation onto the stool, still warm from an old prospector’s ass, and reached for the bandit’s arm.

A grip like a fistful of meathooks yanked him off the stool so fast he left one of his shoes behind.

The casino turned the color of burlap as a sack swallowed his head and before he’d even seen the bastards who pinched him, he was out of the bullpit and in a room he immediately recognised from the sudden intimacy of shoefall echos and smell of old blood.

He kept his mouth shut, even when they threw him into a chair and taped tight his hands and feet. Nothing anyone on this side of the burlap sack could say would get them all out of this little hell on the double.

His hat came off with the bag, letting dirty hair that still smelled a little like Brylcream fall in his eyes. Through the strands, he blinked into a face like a vista, craggy and broken and probably crawling with mutated wildlife. Doubling up the tape around his ankles was a homely kid in a new-looking dress, and in the rest of the little room…no one.

“Hello, stranger.”

A man that big and that ugly should of had a voice like thunder, not a pretty little chirp. He wondered if the kid was throwing her voice, but kept his eyes on the mountain.

“A fella who’s been my guest all week, trying out every machine and noting down which pay out when, he shouldn’t still be a stranger.” The kid finished her taping job and moved out of the way so the mountain could come up close and share the perfume of his last meal, something heavy on eggs and jalapenos. “That’s the kind of fella I want to get to know, and real well.”

Benny didn’t take the opening, which made the other man frown a little. He was supposed to leap in, he knew, with excuses, with promises, with desperate charm. That was how it always went, every time the boys had fingered a fink. He also knew, damn well, how that always ended.

So he kept his eyes on the mountain and his tongue between his teeth as the interrogation continued, making like a deaf-n-dumb at every pause. The kid got antsy, shifting her feet and picking at threads in her dress. When she started to hum, the big man broke off to glare her into silence and looked back like a man who’s dropped his book in the bath.

“Who are you?” he finally spat out.

Direct question – good. Maybe. “You know who I am.”

“Then you know who I am?”

“Bishop,” he replied like he was sure.

“Then you know where we’re going here.” Bishop nodded.

We dance ‘til the music stops. “I got an idea.”

Bishop looked into his eyes so long Benny started to expect a marriage proposal. “I thought you’d be a wiseguy.”

He felt a little sick, hearing that. He was a wiseguy, damn it. He was.

“A wiseguy, I got a place for. It’s three miles out of town, and anyone too shrewd to dig can try a their luck in Deathclaw Canyon.”

He nodded his recognition, even though he’d never gotten fancier than tying up finks in front of Vault 3 and letting the fiends do what came natural.

“But you…there’s a lady in Vegas who might pay dearly to have your head on a plate.”

The little girl frowned, probably resenting the waste of a dish.

“Or maybe I might find a use for a head full of that lady’s secrets.”

“If you’ve set your hat to romancing her, forget the flowers and wine. Try ammo, Jet, and a moonlit stroll through your Deathclaw Canyon.” He immediately regretted breaking the solemn act, but Bishop only looked thoughtful.

“Jet, huh? Shame. Dangerous stuff, Jet. First sign you’ve got a bad dose is when they lay you out on a slab.”

Didn’t he know it. There was a so-called King hooked through the bag on that garbage, whose dealer was on the payroll. If that slum outside’a town got too hot, a little poison in that well would cool it down fast.

He wondered if she knew that, had the same plan in place. No, dammit, the Kings got the premier seats in her loserville social club. She was probably personally couriering in the good stuff every day to keep him sweet.

Still, part of him was glad he hadn’t let leak her little vodka habit.

“I wouldn’t be sad to see your ass hit the sunset.” Bishop pulled a bowie knife the size of his forearm from under his jacket and made a show of nicking wrists and ankles five hundred times in sawing him loose from the tape. “But you can stay in town while I decide which way to throw that greasy head. Just keep your nose so clean I could eat off it. And stay the fuck outta the Shark.”

Bishop made to hand him the sack that still held his hat, then yanked it back.

His heart sank, already seeing the big man rummaging, finding the sensor, the mad, probably hopeless fight to outrun the tape and the chair and a much longer evening with Bishop and his shovel-faced daughter…

Instead, Bishop sent the girl out to the casino, returning with his lost shoe. He dropped the filth-encrusted thing into the burlap and handed it over with a flourish. “You almost forgot this.”

Outside – and down the street, around two corners, past the slaughterhouse – he put his shoe on and caressed the sensor module. The game was still a-foot, baby, even if he’d have to dance a little longer than planned.

* * *

His fingers’re only wrapped around Maria for comfort, the same way the arm they’re attached to is just keeping the wicked Reno wind away from his belly, crouched in the darker space between a chimney base and its fallen top. He’d need a sniper rifle and a prayer to hit any of the mooks clustered outside the old hotel’s main door.

He doesn’t move a muscle while they shove around his canary, the skinny guy who yells out corny jokes behind chickenwire. He flings his arms over his head, breaking off only to point at the door every time they pause. Benny can’t make out what he’s yelling, but nobody’s laughing.

Business as usual for that sap.

The big man himself comes out, roars something that might be “Jackpot!” to the carefully not-gathering crowd, and scatters Benny’s caps, his cache of medical supplies, across the road. Bishop picks up the canary by his neck and throws him into the sudden melee. Wades in after him, stomping on grabbing hands, picks the bastard up again by his feet and swings him hard back to the street.

The caps are scramsville in an eyeblink, the rabble retreating respectfully out of the way of official business before knifing each other for a larger slice of the windfall. Bishop – the bastard! – pops open a Sunset Sarsaparilla and watches the canary grovel, kicking him a time or three for encouragement.

He waits, now, for all the chips to fall, and nods to himself when Chin’s dragged into sight. The old boy keeps his nose in the air, hardly even trembling, until they blow the canary’s brains across his shirt.

Benny can’t blame him, really. Hard to keep your head in a run a’ luck this bad. He shuffles carefully backwards and picks his way down the crumbling wall on the far side, listening for the next gunshot. He’s two blocks away when he hears it.

He can run. They’ll expect him to. It’s how he blew into town, after all, clothes on his back, gun in hand, handful of caps in his pocket. He could count on Chin to sing out that his buddy Pitch stank of double-cross, had one foot in the sand already.

They’ll be running to the gates now, so he strolls, fast-like, into the centre of town.

He could ambush his way out of Vegas, cutting throats for provisions and caps, let the wildlife clear away the evidence, but crossing into NCR means daily patrols. He’ll need caps just to stand up in his own shoes, facing shakedown crossroad tolls, water taxes at every spring. And the big man is taking his best boys to the gates.

So everyone’s bosom buddy Pitch walks into the Shark.

He keeps his head down, but not so far as to attract attention avoiding it. He trades the last five caps in his pockets for chips, heart freezing as he thinks: what if none of the one-armed bandits are hot?

He shoulda cased the machines first, but there’s no time, and a fast case gets the mooks on you like flies on Brahmin shit. He’s got to cowboy up and put it all on one roll of the dice…so to speak. He moseys along the first row of bandits…bupkas. Second row…the sensor’s a dead weight on his head. Third row…he starts to sweat.

Way in the back – he knows how this is going to happen now, he knows before the sensor module starts to dance – that corner slot machine waits for him. And he tells himself it was a damn good plan, bold and sly as any he ran in the old days, and if any other machine had been hot, it would work. He plonks himself onto the stool with no grace, only the weariness of the last year and the year before that, weighing him down worse than cement shoes.

He lifts a chip to the slot, and waits without letting it fall in.

He wonders if the kid looks like him yet. If he should have stayed and seen for himself.

The expected hand falls on his shoulder, but the grip’s only firm. Not punishing.

Not yet.

“You may as well try your luck,” the squeaky voice tells him.

He obediently slots the chip without looking around, watches himself yank the handle. Bells and whistles, chips cascading in his lap, and he raises his voice. “Looks like drinks are on me tonight, fellas.”

A ragged chorus behind him, the blurry cheers of drunks and fiends, and one of Bishop’s boys scoops up his win. The hand on his shoulder lifts, comes down again, a hard thump from one gentleman to another. “It’s good to go out with a little class.”

It tightens. “C’mon.”

The big man frisks him in the street half-heartedly, knowing he’s already cleared out the home stash. Maria goes in his pocket, and Benny’s chest aches. Bishop tosses the sensor module to one of his boys and tells him to figure it out, then make the slots so they can’t be fiddled that way again.

They walk to the edge of town like compadres, flanked by two-legged beef. Whores watch them pass from upper windows with only passing curiosity, no more attention than the big man usually gets when he deigns to walk the streets. They’ve outrun the news, and Benny regrets that. Every filthy bum in town should be watching, so when the story makes its way around, starts off toward the east, it ends on his calm face, straight back, tipping a wink to the prettiest harlot sobbing in her handkerchief.

At the gate, Bishop dismisses his boys. There’s an insult in none of them protesting, melting back into town like their boss isn’t heading into the desert with the East’s Most Wanted. His daughter follows, carrying a shovel on her shoulders like it weighs nothing.

Reno’s street-hugging lights fade quickly behind them, leaving only a broad indigo eggshell over their heads, pricked with distant starlight. None of them shiver in the desert wind. Bishop kicks off his boots and raises his face to the harshest gusts with pleasure, eyes closing, bare feet sure in the loose rocky sand.

Benny tells himself he could take him, and maybe he could, right then. But the big man expects it, from the tightness of his fists. Besides, he’s seen this coming. He’s only been running to this finish line, ever since he buried his knife in old Bingo’s throat.

Hell, he can even be relieved it’s this strange bastard putting him under, not Swank or one of the other boys, ready to fill the big shoes.

The girl skips ahead of them, falls behind examining night-blooming cacti and shiny stones. Her light dress shows a couple of dark stains in the starlight, where she knelt in something that wouldn’t wash out. She sings to herself, something about walking in moonlight, until her father points out there’s no moon. Benny almost recognises her next song (we three, we’re not a crowd), but she doesn’t know most of the words, not enough to help him place it.

It’s a hell of a long walk to the entrance of that canyon, but there’s nothing going through his brain but that piercing wind. It’s sorta peaceful, he’d think if he was thinking, to be outta schemes, outta missions, nothing to plan. Until the big man nods to the canyon, then to the shovel his girl drops in the dirt. Deathclaw chow, or the little dignity of a grave.

He snatches up the shovel. Not because he wants his bones to rest someplace quiet, but because the insult snaps him out of Bombsville.

If you got a man beat, you don’t give him a choice. You cash him out whatever damn way you please. There’s no class in making a man pick between hell and high water like he’s holding the knife to his own throat.

If you’re giving him a choice…you don’t really got him beat.

Besides, the bastard settles back to watch with Benny’s last two Sunset Sarsaparillas, giving one to the little girl and pocketing both caps. There’s a hell of a jingle when he shakes the pocket straight against his thick stem.

So he buys a little time, digging like he needs to get to the other side of the world by happy hour, and puts his brain to work. His ill-fitting jacket rucks up in the armpits, poking him somewhere delicate, and a rough plan is ready before the grave is.

“This is damn thirsty work.” He braces the shovel blade-up in the sand and wipes sweat from his face, resting his foot on the grave’s edge. He has to lift his knee pretty high to reach. “You got another one of those?”

Bishop snorts. “You won’t be thirsty for long, Benny.”

His girl giggles. She’s put the two bottles on her pointer and middle fingers and clanks them together to pass the time.

Benny shrugs, makes a show of wiping his face again, and struggles harder then he has to taking off the heavy trader’s coat, one hand catching in the pocket under the sleeve. “I’m boiling.”

He lifts the jacket toward Bishop, one of those automatic gestures between men of class. Let me take your coat, why certainly, here it is. If Bishop ignores it, or sends the girl to take it…

But Bishop’s a gentleman, or tries to wear the skin of one. He leans close, reaching with both hands.

Benny drops the jacket and whispers a silent thanks to the rat bastard Chin as he rams the syringe of Dix into Bishop’s hand. He clambers out of the hole as the big man jerks backward, swinging the shovel.

Bishop ducks, stumbles, falls. His teeth slam together with a shattering snap, but he still manages to fish Maria from his pocket.

Benny jerks the shovel higher, covering his face with metal and a prayer, but the first two shots blow past his ear.

The girl, howling, tackles him around the knees, staggering him, and sinks her teeth into his thigh. It hurts like hell, but he lets her momentum knock him over onto her father, dropping on his elbow into that broad belly.

It should be a soft landing, but the man’s soft parts feel like stone. Bishop clocks him across the temple with a loose fist, and he drops the second dose of Dix. The girl digs her sharp fingers into his much softer belly, clawing her way up his body as he rolls and fumbles in the sand for the lost syringe. Her nails graze his eye sockets, scraping one cheek. Bishop kicks out blindly, roaring curses, catches both her hand and Benny’s chin, and the night’s made of tweety birds.

He rolls, his hands finding a small neck and grasping, twisting until the sharp fingers gouging tracks in his face drop away. The ground beneath him shakes as Bishop surges to his feet, lurches, crawls closer. His face is a black hole breaking the starry sky.

“Le’er go!” it snarls, mushy around a thick tongue.

Benny drops the small body and puts some distance between them on all fours, finding the shovel. The beast goes to his offspring first, leaving precious seconds to sift through sand until something sharp pricks his palm.

Maria flashes again, and he drops flat to the sand as more bullets fly past. The man’s too big, too much meat, and he’ll shake off the paralyzing effects of the Dix in minutes…leaving only Psycho’s tweaked reflexes and numbness to pain.

He has a fraction of a second to consider that this has not been the tightest caper he’s ever helmed, before he’s scuttling forward on his knees, swinging the shovel low, aiming for ankles. The big man stumbles, catches himself on one knee, but it’s close enough for Benny to jab a second dose into his knotty calf.

The three pass a few quiet minutes together, Bishop juddering and grunting as the poison overwhelms him, the girl still as his grave. He doesn’t check if she’s breathing while he rolls her old man (a fortune in caps, a beaut of a Bowie knife, quart of whisky in the back pocket), but part of him’s relieved when she coughs and rolls onto all fours, retching into the dirt.

The rest of him aims Maria at her head while he kicks the dying man into the hole.

He lets her get on her feet, watching her small face move, the grave between them.

Must seem like an 18-carat run of bad luck

She’s too smart to say anything (or, more likely, still half-strangled), but her eyes stray to her father as he shudders just once more.

He can only put another bullet through her, put her to rest with her father, and walk away. She’s the last person in Reno to know his real name, who he was, where he’d run.

“Too bad you got caught up in this,” he tells her, but she doesn’t even look up from the body.

“Kid,” he says, “willya listen up here?”

She doesn’t even glance at him before she bolts, not into the open country between them and Reno, but the canyon. He keeps Maria on her even when she’s out of range of the little 9mm, but his finger’s not on the trigger.

Smart kid, is all he can think. Smart as anyone who’d run into a deathclaw nest, knowing at least no one’ll follow.

He leaves Bishop exposed. The grave’s not deep enough to keep scavengers out of it, and he’s got no time. He points himself east and south. There’s traders on these roads, traders out of the NCR instead of Reno, and with his outfit, with Bishop’s caps, he can buy his way into a caravan instead of ambushing them.

Damn it all, all of them damned. He’s gonna undo the biggest mistake of his life and re-claim his Lady…maybe even his girl.

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