Maybe Three-Eye Stevens would get him this time. He’d certainly had the opportunity, Roids thought as he pressed his torn suit against a convenient boulder. He pulled out another suit patch - his fifth - and pulled away from the rock. The bullet-sized hole hissed angrily, but stopped abruptly when he slapped a patch on it. Last hole. He sighed gratefully, leaned against the rock, and drew his Doombringer Colt.

“You coming out, Marshal?” came a taunting voice over the comlink.

“Why? You in a hurry to die, Three-Eye?” Roids replied, his strong, even voice belying his desperate situation. Five holes in the suit, four in him, all caused by three bullets, Three-Eye’s trademark. Two went clean through him, causing the four wounds, and the last tagged his suit but missed his body.

“Nope. I’m not even in a hurry to kill you. In fact, I kinda like taking my time. It’s not every day a man kills Roids Cavanaugh.”

“And it won’t be today and it won’t be you, Three-Eye. You took your best shot and I’m still gonna plant you under red rock.”

The old outlaw chuckled. “I reckon not, Marshal. Somebody’ll des my hide one day, but you’ll be in hell first to greet me and kiss my ass."

“But you talk it up, Marshal. Use up what air you got left. You’re not going anywhere I ain’t sending you.”

Not going anywhere, Roids repeated in his head. That’s an understatement he thought dryly. Two hundred meters away, his hov bike, Shitfer, was a twisted, smoldering wreck, the victim of technology. Three-Eye - called that because it was impossible to sneak up on the wily outlaw - had hit Roids’ prototype energy rifle, mounted in the hov scabbard. If that had been the first bullet, Roids would be dead. Caught in the explosion, his atmosphere suit would have ripped to shreds.

But it had been the third slug, and Roids was already falling off his bike from his wounds, and missed the resulting shrapnel. If anything, Shitfer saved his life, for the force of the blast had thrown Roids into the rocks, preventing Three-eyes from getting a finishing shot. He grabbed at his broken rib. Shitfer didn’t have to throw him quite that hard, though.

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“Got one, Paul!”

Becky gave a whoop and closed in on the stray. The DVB Connected was back in business after a successful drive and a reward given them by Marshal Cavanaugh nearly a year ago. Back in business meant backbreaking work, taking care of their ranch and herd of two thousand Dexter cattle. Originally from Earth, the Dexter breed had taken to Mars’ lighter gravity and iron rich soil as though bred for it. And since even a modest ranch like the DVB took up thousands of acres to gather the moisture required to support the grass needed to feed the herd, that much land meant that many more strays. And with the mines and towns so hungry for Mars-grown beef, even this scrawny one-year old fetched a thousand credits on market.

Becky Elam, the “B” in the brand, was herself a firebrand. Having turned seven just that day, she nonetheless handled her bike, Digger, like she’d been born to it. If ever Earth’s Old West could flow in the veins of a Martian born girl, then Becky was that girl.

Her hair, long, brown, and tied back, snapped about her shoulders as she expertly dodged the boulders and cornered the stray back toward the direction of water and grass. Dexters were pretty smart for cattle, but that was like saying carrots were pretty smart for vegetables. Becky used Digger’s low power prod to coax the stray along. After a couple kilometers, it suddenly smelled the water and picked up its pace. Becky swung Digger around, pointing him toward the extreme edge of their range.

“I’m heading down to the delta, Paul. I’ll look for strays and patch up the faulty builder there.”

“Sounds good. See ya’ at dinner time. Lasagna for the birthday girl tonight.”

“Believe me, I won’t be late!” Becky laughed, then gunned Digger to full speed, racing for the distant wind delta. When it came to lasagna, Becky was not only on time for dinner, she was early.

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“Gotcha!” Three-Eye exclaimed, triggering his pistol three times.

Despite himself, Roids chuckled quietly as he watched the outlaw jump the location Roids had abandoned twenty minutes earlier. Roids brought up his pistol. It was a good hundred meters from his rocky outcropping to the outlaw, but he wouldn’t get a better chance.

Roids got no chance. Even as Three-Eye was trigging his first shot, he somehow knew he’d been set up. He pushed off a boulder and dropped like nightfall in the Rim. By the time he’d shot his third round, he was behind cover and tracking where Roids single shot had come from.

Roids pulled back. The outlaw’s ability to sense traps was uncanny. But it was the only thing left for Roids. The outlaw wouldn’t face him man to man. He’d do just what he said; he’d follow Roids until either he or Mars had killed the tough, blue-eyed Marshal.

Roids holstered his Colt and began working his way deeper and higher into the rocks. Sunset was about three hours away and he needed a cave to have any chance of surviving the night. To judge by the warm, wet blood soaking his clothing and inside of his suit, he’d probably need more than a cave.

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Becky stood abruptly, and stared out beyond the reddish energy dome that kept in the air and warmth and marked the end of the DVB ranch. A roll of thunder that could only be guns touched her ears and sent a shiver through her.

She closed the builders access panel and activated it. It hummed slightly, then began scanning the barrier. It was an auxiliary builder, so Becky didn’t have her helmet on.

Gathering up her tools, Becky walked over to Digger and stowed the repair kit. She tapped Digger’s console and brought up a wide area map.

“Digger, look for energy readings outside the barrier and put them on screen.”

Digger cheerfully pinged and did as requested. One energy source and one possible. The first was a Harley Series 6 hov bike. But the second? It had a hov bike type signature, but was weak and erratic.

“Identify the weaker signal,” Becky told her bike.

The screen zoomed in on the weaker signal and soon the analysis appeared above the image. A damaged Dust Devil, Model 5. Becky felt a second shiver race through her.

A Marshal’s bike.

There was no hesitation in Becky. She put on her helmet, swung a leg over Digger and gunned the engine. She wanted to contact Paul, Hank, Randy and the other DVB hands, but knew her transmission could be picked up by whomever was on the other side of the barrier. Besides, she told herself as she approached the barrier at sixty kilometers an hour, it was probably a false alarm.

The energy barrier hummed as Becky passed through, then shimmered as the builders calmed down the energy patterns and went back to their monotonous existence.

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Roids jumped for the cave lip and on the third try finally made it. Not a moment too soon, either. The sun was just dipping beneath the patera’s far wall, and the bitter cold of night was setting in. He pulled himself up with his last energy, then rolled into the mouth of the cave. His shoulder wounds had started bleeding again.

He lay on his back, gasping. He massed eighty-two kilos - lean for his tall frame - but weighed less than twenty-five kilos in Martian gravity. Lifting one’s own body weight on Mars was very easy. Unless you had four bullet holes in your body. Could be worse, Roids thought wryly. Had they not gone through, he’d have the weight of two more slugs to carry.

He still wasn’t strong enough to erect the emergency barrier at the cave mouth, but had to anyway. He clicked it on and the builder quickly erected a low energy barrier and began manufacturing air. Fumbling in the cold and dark, Roids dug out a heat panel and started it. The panel started glowing softly and the cave warmed. Roids felt the weariness drift over him, but had to stay awake until the cave was pressurized and he could stop using his suit’s air supply.

The cave reached twenty degrees at the same time the builder pinged adequate pressure. Roids removed his helmet, then dug out his only food and had a scant meal of jerked beef and water. Chewing slow and appreciatively, he assessed his situation.

Bad.

On the positive side, he was alive. And the bleeding had stopped. And he’d been able to not only evade Three-Eye but also lose him for the night.

On the negative side, his suit had maybe one more day of air. And while he could use the builder to charge the suit, it could only do it when not being used to erect barriers. Roids would need to hold his breath at least eight or nine hours for the builder to recharge his suit. A mite long for even the most determined of souls.

His bike was destroyed, with only emergency equipment left. His food was gone, and his water down to a day’s supply. Nobody knew where he was, his long-range comm was down and his beacon would only call Three-Eye faster than the nearest Ranger, Nathan Walters. And, probably worst of all, he was down to his last five rounds of ammo for his Colt.

He was weak and cold from blood loss and had a pounding headache. About the only thing he had the strength to do was pass out, which he didn’t dare do. With no one to rouse him, he’d never wake up.

Nevertheless, he soon slumped over to his side, unconscious.

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Becky reached the Dust Devil shortly after dark. Dismounting Digger, she pulled her rifle from its scabbard and looked around, her helmet light casting a pool of brilliance two meters in front of her.

It was Marshal Cavanaugh’s hov, all right. Becky knew it was his patrol area this month, but had refused to believe the handsome Ranger could be ambushed. Her heart still raced at the sound of his name or the thought of his smiling face and blond curls. She was too old for silly crushes, she told herself. Then what was it she felt? She shook her head. Now wasn’t the time. She turned her attention back to the ground.

The story was easily read. He’d been shot while mounted. He’d fallen off, then the bike had exploded. Becky found several specks of blood and even a patch backing, lodged under a rock.

Becky began following the blood. It stopped at a boulder, which made her glad, but also made tracking more difficult. Still, she pushed gamely on.

Half an hour later, she lost the trail entirely on a rocky ledge. By that time, though, she knew Roids was a hunted man. There’d been a second set of prints occasionally on top of Roids’. Since Roids sense of justice and purity of heart could not be disputed, that made the second person an outlaw. A back shooting outlaw, for no villain could take on Marshal Cavanaugh’s guns in a fair fight and survive.

Becky pulled up short. He was being hunted! Her anger boiled up and she immediately decided to hunt the hunter. Fortunately, Becky’s common sense was only a hair slower than her anger, and she realized how foolish that would be. Better to help the Marshal, and get him to safety. But to do that, she had to find him without the outlaw finding either her or Roids. She walked back to Digger, thinking it through.

By the time she’d returned, she had a plan. It was hopeless to continue tracking the two. If she did that, she’d have to pass the outlaw to get to the wounded Ranger. Better to figure out where Roids would lay up for the night.

Becky mounted Digger and began recharging her suit. She’d best keep looking. Not only would the outlaw hole up until dawn, it was quite possible that the Marshal was only hours from death. Swallowing hard at the thought, Becky laid in her search coordinates and accelerated quickly away.

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Roids awoke to a screeching alarm. Struggling to a sitting position, he looked blearily at the builder just as it shut off, its fuel supply exhausted.

The barrier dropped. Cold rushed in, air rushed out. Roids reached for his helmet, but it was pulled to the edge of the cave mouth by the decompression.

He was choking. Dying. He felt his breath, his very life, being sucked from him, ravaging his body with thirst. So parched, so cold. He swallowed sand. He swallowed again and felt wetness as the sand ripped open his throat and blood poured into his lungs...

Roids snapped awake. The builder was toning a low fuel alarm, but was still functioning. His thirst, however, was very real, brought on from loss of blood.

He grabbed his canteen and drank greedily. He should probably save some water, but knew he had to replace what he’d lost in blood or he’d be in even worse condition.

Roids drained the canteen and set it aside. Time to feed the builder. Seeing a mound of sand, Roids reached for it.

A stabbing pain shot through him, and his arm wound reopened. Darkness began painting his vision. Wincing from the effort, he took a handful of sand and stretched out toward the builder.

He might have made it before he blacked out again. He might not have.

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Becky glanced at her helm’s clock. Just past four. Dawn would be coming in two and half hours and she’d checked only a dozen of the caves she knew about. She needed to narrow her search parameters; have Digger pick the more likely caves from the less likely ones.

But what made a cave more likely?

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Five-thirty. Three-Eye wasn’t getting any more sleep and he knew it. Three-Eye’s cave was very warm and fully pressurized. Not exactly roughing it, he thought with a smile. He rolled out of his bag, slung on his gun, and went to his bike. The Harley purred like a kitten, despite its age.

He spent the next half-hour eating a full breakfast and looking over the topography maps of the area. Cavanaugh was on foot and was going to stay that way. That greatly reduced the search, and anyway, three more days and the Marshal would be dead for sure. Still, Three-Eye knew the impossible ways the legendary Ranger had survived in years passed. It would be much better to see him dead; to bury him with his own hands. To be sure.

Three-Eye broke camp, packed the Harley, and eased out of the cave, looking the area over carefully. Dawn was coming, with sunrise thirty minutes off. No wind, nor had there been in weeks. The surface of Mars was stark, sharp and crystal clear. A good day.

A good day to kill a law man.

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She’d found him.

Becky looked through her helmet’s enhanced visor overlay and stared at a small cave opening less than a kilometer away. Only a glimmer of heat registered. Normally, a barrier kept in all heat, but not if it was failing.

She kicked Digger’s sides, urging him on. She prayed she wasn’t too late.

It was a near thing. The cave was too small to hold Digger, so she left him on top of the patera ridge and carefully climbed down to the cave, burdened with emergency supplies and her rifle. Taking a breath out of fear for what she might see, Becky stepped into the cave and through the barrier.

Roids lay stretched out, face down, a hand stretched out to the builder. The sand on his glove and the nearly exhausted pile beside the builder told the story.

The builder snapped and popped as it struggled to rebuild the barrier; she’d been foolish to step through it without setting up another one first. She’d bent down to feed the builder when Roids’ hand twitched. He was alive! Becky wanted to shout. She was in time!

Quickly, Becky set up her own builder and activated it. It was the larger one from her bike, so it quickly warmed and pressurized their small sanctuary. Breathing a sigh of relief that the immediate danger was past, Becky removed her helmet and began tending to her true... the Marshal.

He was alive. Barely. It was good she’d arrived then. Another hour and he’d be dead. First, she gave him water. He struggled briefly, but swallowed some, though he remained unconscious. Next, Becky worked his suit off, then used Roids’ builder to recharge it. She then broke open her med kit and saw to his wounds. He’d been slug shot, one in the left shoulder, a second in his left arm. Both had gone through and the resulting wounds were ugly. He also showed massive bruising on his powerful, sculpted... On his chest. Probably a broken rib.

She’d seen worse. In ten minutes, the wounds were cleaned and dressed. She double checked the patches on the Marshal’s suit and cleaned his Colt. Only five rounds left, she noted. Good thing she’d brought her rifle. If whoever hunted Roids found them, Becky wanted to respond properly.

The gun cleaned and laid beside the Marshal, Becky put a pouch of beef stew on her heating panel, which doubled as a stove. Standing and stretching, Becky looked down at the wounded man. Pale from blood loss, unshaven, dirty, and the bandages were already bloodstained. But his honesty, toughness and sense of justice still shown through. A more handsome...

She turned her head quickly. Better not to think about that now. There were too many things to take care of, too many things to do.

Perhaps when this was over...

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Damn! Three-Eye thought with growing frustration. Where on Mars wasCavanaugh? Half a day spent searching and not a trace of the wounded Ranger. Three-Eye began thinking Roids had already died and maybe fell into a crevasse or got lodged between two boulders. Some place where no living man would go.

On the other hand, he thought, he’d crossed Cavanaugh once before and underestimated him then. The man’s cold, clear blue eyes had rattled the outlaw then, but had also told him that the Marshal was a man who’d require a whole lot of killing before he’d stay down.

Three-Eye had walked away from that encounter - Roids was looking for someone else and hadn’t recognized Three-Eye - but he knew that before he’d ever be comfortable again, Roids Cavanaugh must die.

Giving a sigh of frustration, Three-Eye made his way back to his bike to begin searching anther section of the desert. Another two days would be enough to be certain. But it would only be when Three-Eye stared into Cavanaugh’s dead face that he’d ever know for sure.

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Becky’s eyes snapped open. She hadn’t meant to go to sleep. She looked around to be sure everything was all right. It was. Even better, Roids was sitting up against the cave wall, slowly eating the stew she’d made. He smiled at her and winked.

“Reckon this evens us up a mite, Miss Becky.” He took another forkful of beef. “You surely pulled my body from the sand that time.”

She blushed, but went to her pack and fished out water and more food. Roids took her silence as a mute “you’re welcome” and continued eating.

“Here,” she said, offering him the full canteen. “You’ve lost a lot of blood.”

He nodded gratefully and drank long from the sweet water. He pulled the canteen from his mouth for a moment, then drank again before returning it to her.

“How many of the hands do you have along?” he asked, stabbing a nice piece of beef in the stew.

“None. Just me.”

The fork stopped halfway to his mouth. He looked at her carefully, then ate the meat. He nodded slowly, as though agreeing with her decision.

“Don’t s’pose I can fault your judgment. I was pretty near dead when you got here. Waiting long enough to gather your riders might’ve turned this from a rescue to a burial.”

“I can handle myself,” Becky replied.

“No doubt,” Roids agreed. “But you ain’t the one huntin’ me. Can you handle Three-Eye Stevens?”

Becky said nothing.

“Don’t get me wrong, Beck,” Roids offered helpfully. Her heart thumped at his use of her nickname. “I owe you big time. Three-Eye had my name on red rock. Without you, I’d be a dead man right now. It’s just that this is a might more complicated than hightailing it to the DVB. We’ve got Three-Eye to consider. He’s gonna be mighty upset you showed. Puts a kink in his plans.”

“So maybe I should put a hole in his kink,” Becky said, feeling her anger stirring. She held up her rifle, a Winchester ’04 that fired standard 12mm titanium slugs. “I’ve hit targets at 500 meters with this.”

“Targets don’t move, Beck. They don’t shoot back, either,” Roids replied. He gave out a sigh. “We’ll work something out.”

The next hour passed quietly. Roids wanted to stay another day, but feared Three-Eye would find Becky’s bike and investigate. It was best to take their chances and make a run for the DVB. They agreed to break camp.

Problems started immediately. Roids was so weak from blood loss that Becky needed to help him get his recharged suit back on. Even worse, he couldn’t stand without even more help. They tried several times, but finally Roids sagged against the cave wall, exhausted.

“This ain’t so good,” he gasped. He’d been positive he could muster up the strength for a short climb to the bike. It wasn’t going to happen. And the slope was far too steep and the cave far too small to bring the bike here.

“Only one thing to do, Beck. You got to leave me here.”

“I’m staying,” she said with surprising strength in her voice. Roids smiled a little, but shook his head.

“I’m not saying leave me to die. I’m just saying go fetch the DVB hands. If we take down the builder and I lay quiet, the chance of Three-Eye spotting me before you got back don’t even matter.” At her hesitation, he clapped her on the shoulder. “It’s gotta be this way, Beck. You’ve done a great job ‘til now. But you gotta see it through.”

She nodded. They broke camp and latched on their helmets. She’d leave all her equipment here in case she couldn’t make it back before nightfall. She wanted to leave her rifle, but Roids shook his head.

“You never know,” he said. “I don’t expect you to-” He suddenly went still.

“What is it?” she asked, already knowing the answer. She switched over to the Marshal’s channel.

“...mangy hide!”

There was a loud boom and sand kicked up at the mouth of the cave. Three-Eye had found them!

Roids lurched to the cave mouth, drawing his Doombringer. Becky followed with her rifle, but Roids motioned her back and brought a finger to his helmet, indicating she should be quiet. Was it possible Three-Eye didn’t know Becky was there?

Roids staggered and fell just as another powerful boom echoed through the canyon. Becky’s heart jumped to her throat. He’d been hit! No, she decided a moment later. He’d fallen from weakness, not a gunshot.

Weak though he was, his return fire was quick and sharp. Becky heard Roids click on the comlink.

“Don’t think you got me yet, Three-Eye. Even with a couple holes in me, I gotta lot more sand than you ever had.”

“You think, Marshal? Just stick your head out that cave and we’ll see.”

“Sands in my soul, Three-Eye, not in my head,” Roids answered with a chuckle. Becky was amazed how these two men, determined to kill each other, could talk back and forth so calmly. “Tell you what, though. Come out in the open with your hands up an’ I’ll take you in alive. Whattya say?”

A nasty laugh crackled the comlink.

“Now you think I got sand in my head, Cavanaugh!” Another boom and more sand kicked up less than a meter from Roids head. He didn’t even flinch. Becky gripped her rifle tighter.

“C’mon out, Marshal,” Three-Eye ordered. “Face it, you’re going to suffocate in that cave. I know your suit’s almost dry. You won’t last ‘til night, Cavanaugh, but even if you did, you’d freeze. Come out and I’ll finish you quick.”

“Not a chance!” Roids yelled, firing his Doombringer wildly. The gun clicked empty. Roids stood and pulled a knife and flashed it. “You want me, Three-Eye, you come and get me!” Roids fell against the cave wall, his knife sagging. “I’ll.... I’ll take you with me, you suit-slashin’ worthless... worthless bag of Terran... Terran cow du... ng...” Roids slumped to his knees, then fell on his face, most of his body now fully exposed.

Becky wanted to scream. He was dead! Roids Cavanaugh had been killed! It wasn’t possible! She didn’t even think about herself, instead just stared at the only man who’d ever won her heart besides her father. She’d loved her father dearly, but he was gone now. And just when she was turning her eyes elsewhere, to the lanky Marshal, he lay dead at her feet. With tears clouding her vision, she moved to him.

His hand moved!

Not the flailing movement of a dying man, nor the twitch of a dead one. His left arm lay toward her and he motioned her to stay back. He then opened his hand. A moment, then he closed it, then reopened it, showing four fingers. Realization dawned.

He was counting down, signaling her while luring in Three-Eye! The outlaw didn’t know Becky was there! It was an incredible risk, lying helpless to the outlaw’s guns, but it was the only way to escape the deathtrap the cave had become.

The minutes passed. Then three fingers, and a slight motion toward the left of the cave. Becky nodded, though Roids’ head was turned. The killer was to the left of them.

More time. Three-Eye was taking his time, the wily outlaw living up to his name. Becky had eyes only for the Marshal’s left hand. Two fingers. His hand flattened and lowered, indicating Three-Eye was below the cave. Becky pressed against the left side of the cave, stooped and worked her way closer.

One finger. She checked the load in her rifle. Safety off.

A long ten minutes, the Roids suddenly closed his hand and jabbed a fist. Becky took a deep breath, stood, and stepped beside the fallen Marshal, aiming her rifle left and down. Her heart was tripping to the point of bursting.

Three-Eye was there, carefully approaching Roids. His eyes lit up with surprise at the sight of Becky. He swung up his rifle just as her gunsight settled on his body. Breathing carefully, Becky gently squeezed off her shot!

There came the double boom of rifles, Becky’s a split second ahead of the outlaw’s. Stone exploded beside her, showering her with debris but doing no harm. Three-Eye had missed! Becky’s shot, however, went true.

Three-Eye staggered back, dropping his rifle and clutching his throat. Blood spurted from both sides of his suit. Three-Eye sagged to his knees, then fell on his face. No trick like the Marshal’s, though. The titanium slug had shot clean through his neck, destroying the outlaw’s helmet latch. The helmet broke free and rolled down the canyon slope. It bounced several times, picking up speed, then bounded into the darkness below.

A slight movement at her right, and Roids Cavanaugh was standing beside her, arm at his ribs, looking down at the dead man.

“Not bad,” he said with approval. “Reckon Three-Eye won’t be braggin’ too much that he nailed me. His voice is shot.” He swung his gaze up to Becky. “You okay, Beck?”

She nodded, feeling a numbness coming over her. She tore her stare away from the dead outlaw and looked into Roids’ eyes. “That was the first person I’ve ever killed.”

Roids nodded in understanding and put an arm around her. Not to support him but to comfort her.

“It’s a hard thing, Beck, to kill a man. Even when you’ve got no choice. Even when they deserve it. Even when you save a life doin’ it.” He pulled her close and hugged her.

“How ‘bout we get over to the DVB and I’ll tell you ‘bout my first killing while I heal up. Believe me, it’ll help.”

Her rifle clattered to the ground and she clung to him, grateful for his strength and understanding. Understanding... Becky pulled her head back and looked at him.

“I... I... thought I loved you, Roids,” Becky said, her heart doing a lonely flip flop. She’d finally called him by his first name and it felt strange. Good, but strange. “I think I still do, but it’s different now.”

Roids nodded.

“You got Marshal blood in you, Beck.” He gestured at the dead outlaw. “Three-Eye killed for the wrong reasons. Love of money. Love of killing. But you,” he held her close again. “You killed for a different kind of love. Not love for me, but for what I stand for.” He tapped his red iron Ranger badge.

“Love of justice.”

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Under Fire

Copyright ©2002 by Peter Prellwitz All Rights Reserved.