"It's not time already, is it, Paul?" Becky moaned, burying her head deeper into the sleeping bag. She definitely needed to cut back on reading in bed, at least when out on the range.

"Yes'm," came Paul's short, warm chuckle. Paul was the foreman of the Elam ranch, but he wore his position with a casual familiarity that put everyone at ease while motivating them to work. "My watch says 12:52, so your shift starts in forty-five minutes, at one A.M. sharp. Up and at 'em, lady!"

Stretching and yawning, Becky gave in to the man's pleasant encouragement and crawled out of her bag. Dressing quickly - even in the sealed, pressurized canyons of their ranch, Martian nights were still plenty cold - Becky slipped on her favorite blue and white checked shirt and pulled on her denim jumper. She brushed her thick, brown hair out and eased into her surface suit, then picked up her helmet and emerged from the tent.

Four of the seven hands her mother had hired for the roundup were at the fire, watching the flames cheerfully eating away at the artificial rockwood they used as fuel. Either the portable or hov thermal heaters would have been more than ample, but a glowing panel could never match the atmosphere created by crackling flames, and Becky was very glad their ranch, the DVB Connected, stuck to the old traditions of the Martian frontier, patterned after the Old West of Earth in the late 19th century.

"Where's Texas Tommy?" Becky asked, sitting on her helmet which she'd placed on the ground. She accepted a cup of hot chocolate from Randy, their cook and oldest hand. Randy cracked a big grin and jerked his thumb off toward the darkness to the south.

"Out watching the herd with Zeke and Martin," Phil replied. With the DVB only a year now, he was a tall, thin man with wiry muscles and a constant grin. He'd quickly established himself as the ranch prankster; a calling he served with great zeal. "Tommy still ain't got a handle on the right time."

The others laughed knowingly, Becky included. Texas Tommy was new to Mars, fresh from Earth. Like all Terrans, he was bulky, strong and clumsy. And like most Terrans, he struggled with Martian time. Since Mars' rotation was thirty-seven minutes longer than Earth's, the extra time was added on at midnight, making the "witching hour" ninety-seven minutes long instead of sixty. When her mom had first hired him a month ago, he was consistently early to work each morning. Now that they were on the range, he had overcompensated and stayed out too long.

They chatted for awhile, Becky joining in freely. Still a week shy of six years old, she was nonetheless one of the hands and pitched in as an equal. Looking and acting older than most kids her age helped considerably. This was her first roundup and drive, but neither that nor her status as the ranch owner's daughter got her special treatment, and she pulled midnight watch like everyone else. That was the way she and her mother liked it.

Becky finished her hot chocolate, but Tommy still wasn't back, so she rinsed out her cup and put it away. Pulling her rifle from the chuck hov's gun rack, she picked up the saddlebag Randy had packed for her and returned to the fire. Snatching up her helmet, Becky glanced at the clock display on the inside.

"12:65. I'm heading out," she announced, walking toward the corral, slinging the rifle over her shoulder. "I'll find Tommy and get the report from him out there." The others chuckled again and called out their good-byes.

The corral was only twenty yards away from the fire, but it was still nearly pitch black, so thoroughly did Martian nights swallow up light. And deep inside a narrow, sealed canyon such as this, not even the stars or reflective dust storms that frequently raced over the surface far above them could do much to brighten the area.

Not that Becky minded. Quite the contrary, she loved it! Out here on the range, a hundred kilometers from the ranch house, Becky felt the exhilarating freedom that drew so many adventurous souls to Mars. She'd been born on Mars, unlike her parents who'd emigrated from someplace called Syracuse, New York - on Earth - and she was Martian through and through.

There was a steady hum coming from the corral as the dozen hovs sat quietly on invisible clouds of antigravity, quietly regenerating their power cells for the next day's activities. Becky puckered her lips and make a couple kissing sounds.

"C'mere, Digger," she called out quietly. "Time to hit the range."

From the midst of the machines came a light, cheerful tone. A soft light appeared and one of the hovs pulled free from the others and floated gently to her, purring contentedly. She slid the rifle into the saddle scabbard, secured the saddle bag and swung a leg over the seat. Settling in while glancing over the gauges, she put on the helmet and sealed it to her surface suit, leaving the faceplate open. She didn't need the air supply while on the range; the massive air builders located throughout the DVB created more than enough breathable atmosphere. But a Martian surface suit and helmet had many more uses than just protection from the thin and deadly Martian atmosphere that was locked out of the canyon by the large barriers that covered the top and mouth of the thirty kilometer long canyon. A tool in the fullest sense, suit and helmet contained navigational arrays, communications, provided heating and water, and gave protection from sharp rocks and heavy falls. The helmet had lighting and various displays. It also protected the head; falling off a fast moving hov with a helmet had a much happier ending than falling without one. And yet, to a Martian, it was no more inconvenient than chaps and cowboy hat; a permanent part of the job that a Martian cowhand never gave a second thought to.

Satisfied Digger was up and on the bounce, she took a quick nav sight and brought him around. Becky gunned the engine and Digger shot off toward the south, girl and machine ready for another night of patrolling the herd.

 

Twenty kilometers to the south, lying on the ridge of a small knoll, Four Beers Murphy watched the distant headlight of the hov move away from the corral and head down the canyon in his general direction. Twenty meters below and half a kilometer in front of him, unseen but unmistakably smelled, were the eight hundred head of cattle that he wanted. Unfortunately for Four Beers, two night guards that he didn’t want were also down there. He glanced down at his watch and clucked his tongue with satisfaction.

"12:70," he said approvingly.

"See?" Texas Tommy said with greenhorn glee. "I tol' you she's just regular as can be. In five minutes she'll be pinging me, asking why I was late again and wanting the range report." He laughed. “They’re all so dumb, they think I’m still messed up ‘bout your stupid Martian clock.”

"I'll take your word for it, Tommy," Four Beers said, not really wanting to hear any more of the man's heavy voice or grating Terran accent than was necessary. "An' you're sure the other hands won't head out, checking on her? She's just a little girl. Not even a tenager."

"Can't be more than eleven or twelve," Tommy agreed, then caught the mean look in Four Beers eyes. "Err.. I mean, six in Martian years. But she's all growed up, the way she thinks it, and the other hands let her think that. They're all a bunch of lazy grunts anyway, an' probably wouldn't do too much to save her hide," Tommy said, unable to see beyond his own character. "What the widow's paying them ain't worth gettin' shot at. I'm tellin' you, Murphy. My plan will work."

"Mebbe," Four Beers said thoughtfully. He already had five men on the job, and didn't want to split with a sixth. He needed to carefully manipulate Texas Tommy into taking the fall for the rustling and murder without letting the traitor becoming aware. He smiled and nodded his head. "All right, Tommy, we'll play it your way. Butt Johnson's bagging the Marshal tomorrow night. We'll take the kid after that, rig her and the other two hands’ deaths as accidental, round up the cattle and be a thousand kilometers away before they can call in the next closest Marshal." Four Beers leaned back and called quietly over his shoulder. "Hey, Book! Which Marshal's got the circuit this month?"

"Marshal Hodges, Four Beers," Book Bainsworth replied just as quietly; in the stillness of a Martian night, sound carried incredible distances in sealed canyons. "She's a new Marshal. Less than a year on the trail. She's also got a bad habit of taking an evening walk away from her bike. Butt said he'd take her out tomorrow night."

"Good," Four Beers said. The hov bike nearest them pinged.

"Hey, Tommy!" Becky's voice came over the bike speaker. "You're late again! Meet me over at Walther's Point Water Tank."

"Better go, Tommy," Four Beers chuckled. "Your boss is callin' you." The others laughed as well.

"She ain't my boss!" he snapped. While he had come to Mars to purposely join and betray a ranch for the herd and easy money, he still didn't like Martians. Too fragile and slippery. "An' after tomorrow night, she won't be actin' like it, neither!" He looked off at the fast moving light sliding over the Martian terrain. "She don't know it yet, but she's only one Red Marshal away from dead."

 

Ten minutes to four. Her shift nearly over, Becky gave a loud yawn and swung her bike around the water tank at Walther's Point and started yet another lazy loop around the quiet herd of Dexter cattle. Just ten minutes until Phil came out to take over her watch. Then a few quick hours of sleep - provided she didn't waste it reading again - and another day would dawn. One more week and the canyons and draws on the northeastern end of the Timonium Chasma would be gleaned of DVB cattle and the drive could begin. Becky was proud of her part in it so far.

It was Marshal Cavanaugh who'd made it all possible, though. Her face flushed slightly as she recalled his lean, powerful body, his bright blue eyes and his blond hair, as thick and wavy as her own brown hair. He had come visiting several months ago. After a good meal, he'd relaxed on their sofa, only to be ambushed by an outlaw named Laserface Williams. He'd grabbed Becky and was using her as a shield when Marshal Cavanaugh had shot him dead, saving both Becky and her mother.

Then, a month after he'd left, Mother found a large sum of money in their meager cred account. Marshal Cavanaugh had reported how she'd helped in Laserface's capture and death and was entitled to the full reward. That reward money had gone a long way in clearing accounts and letting Mother hire the extra hands needed to start a roundup and drive. And with the money from the sold cattle, the DVB ranch would be a going concern again.

She ran her gloved fingers over the side of the hov where the brand marker was, causing Digger to give an extra purr. The DVB. Becky vividly recalled the day she discovered she was the "B" in the DVB. Named for her father, Dan, her mother, Vickie and herself. Her beloved father was gone now, but she and her mother would continue the ranch and the name. One day, when she married and had children, she'd name her first son after her father.

Married. Becky looked around nervously, but no one was looking. Texas Tommy had long since gone back to camp and Zeke and Martin were on the other side of the herd. Besides, it was far too dark a night for any one to see the quick breathing and bright eyes of a young girl as she rode herd and dreamed of one day being married to a lean, curly haired, blue eyed Marshal named Roids Cavanaugh.

 

"Marshal Cavanaugh..." Shitfer said quietly over the private comlink. Roids' eyes snapped open at the quiet call and quickly focused on the faceplate's display, which said it was only nine PM. It also displayed an enemy-in-range light, indicating a position forty meters west of the small wind cave he was sleeping in.

"I see 'im, Shitfer," Roids replied quietly. It had taken him months to properly train his Dustdevil Model 5 hov bike, but he was sleeping sounder at night, now that the slowwitted vehicle had finally learned its job. "Who is he and can he see us?" Although low on brains - hence the name - Shitfer had superior scanning equipment.

"Affirmative, Marshall. He is using a Hollow Stump Level Three probe." That meant he could only see general blurs. "His prison implant identifies him as Kenneth Johnson, criminal ID number MD0008D34. He has served time for petty theft, drunk and disorderly, and shuttle fraud. He is currently wanted for..."

"That's okay," Roids interrupted. He rolled over and got to his feet slowly. Butt Johnson's criminal record was a pale shadow compared to his criminal career. The small crimes he'd done time for only hid his true profession; dry-gulcher. Apparently, someone had decided Roids was to be next.

Or had they? Roids was outside his normal rounds this month, covering Marshal Hodges' area as well as his own while she recovered from a bullet hole she'd gotten the previous week. More than likely, Lisa was the real target.

In that case, the killer would be looking for the perfect time to gun her down. And though she'd finally learned her lesson about wandering too far from her bike, Roids thought that old habit might be the opportunity Butt Johnson was looking for. It seemed only right that Roids give the man what he wanted.

 

When was she going to show her head? Butt Johnson thought sourly. According the probe he had - banged up but still working for the most part - she'd woken up and moved around some, but hadn't left the cave. He sighed and shifted the weight on his namesake. A man of normal size and average build, he'd been cursed with extra wide hips and a posterior to match. While this backside curiosity of form would have earned him some good money in the carnivals that traveled about the solar system, it also gave him an advantage when waiting patiently and motionless for a mark to finally present a good target.

Patience that paid off now. Through the probe's vision hooked into the rifle scope, Butt could see that Hodges was finally ready for her walk. Slipping from sitting to prone, he brought up his slug rifle and sighted the best location. Twenty meters from the cave and in his direction, even if he only wounded her, Butt would have her in the open and helpless to a second finishing shot.

The glowing figure moved away from her bike and stood at the entrance, stretching. Take your time, lady, he thought wickedly, Cause it's all the time you got left.

She looked about, no doubt using her infrared scanner, but did a sloppy job of it and failed to notice Butt's location above her. Satisfied she was alone, the Marshal walked in the direction Butt knew she'd take.

She approached the target location, but stopped just short, her head still behind a large basalt boulder. She began jumping up and down, bounding several meters in the air, but not clearing the boulder. Butt frowned as he watched her through the scope. What was she doing? Did she know he was there?

From the cave there came a loud sound and flash of light. Butt swung the gun over to the commotion. The bike was firing its guns into the cave! Why in the world...? Realization hit and Butt swung his gun back to the bouncing Marshal.

Gone! He swept the area along her path and saw nothing. Suddenly, a large object landed directly in front of him, filling the scope.

Butt jerked back, pulling the rifle with him to take a shot, but it was yanked from his hands. The Marshal had timed the jump perfectly, bouncing onto the boulder and launching toward him while he was distracted by the hov. His helmet light flashed on the Marshal's red iron badge and only then did he realize it wasn't Hodges. It was Roids Cavanaugh!

Butt wanted to surrender. How desperately he wanted to surrender! Yet even while his mind screamed to give up, his instinct for always shooting his way out of a tight spot betrayed him and he felt his right hand drop to his pistol.

His gun was halfway out of its holster when he saw Cavanaugh's hand blur, reaching for his own gun. Butt suddenly heard a hissing sound. It was directly in front of him, right where the hole in his faceplate was. The hole that had been made by Cavanaugh's bullet which was nestled someplace safe inside Butt's skull. Someplace nice and warm, where it was so very quiet except for the warm hissing and even that was getting quiet. Quiet and warm and warm and quiet and quiet and...

 

Roids Cavanaugh pulled the gun from Butt's hand and tossed it aside. The outlaw's surface suit had finished decompressing and was lying tight against the fallen body, the bitterly cold and dry Martian atmosphere already beginning the desiccation process. Freeze dried killer. Just add water.

"Looks like you took on a job too many, Butt," Roids commented dryly as he looked about for the outlaw's trail. "Just as well. Probably wouldn't a gotten paid for killing the wrong Marshal anyway." He found the trail and followed it quickly back to the outlaw's hidden hov. He accessed the onboard travel log.

"There's plenty of better places and times to shoot a Marshal," Roids mused out loud. "So what's out here that would make you want to take out Lisa?" Within moments, he had his answer.

The DVB.

 

Three hundred kilometers to the north, the nightly routine had begun. It was just past 12:60 and Becky was finishing her hot cocoa, talking to the hands who hung around the fire. They'd all turn in once she was safely off, but each man there either had a daughter or wanted a daughter who had Becky's friendliness and confidence. Though none would admit it, this late night chat with her beside the fire was a high point in an otherwise boring and physically hard working day.

"You don't think Tommy's wrong, do you?" Phil was saying from his sleeping bag, where he lay with a steaming mug of coffee. "You know; two rounds short of a loaded gun. I mean, it ain't that different; the times 'tween us and Earth."

"He's a Terran," Hank said, staring into the flames. A taciturn man who was quietly friendly with those he knew, he offered no explanation nor did he need to. Terrans - when they first got to Mars, at least - were incredibly strong, having come from a planet with a gravity three times normal. Yet what they had in physical toughness they seemed to lack in mental toughness. Of the seven cowhands riding for the DVB brand, only two had been born on Mars. But the others considered themselves Martians and rightly so; none had any urge to return to Earth.

"I don't think it's that," Becky said, sounding doubtful. "Not even Terrans are that set in their ways. My guess is he's just not paying attention to the time. Either that or..." She wanted to voice her real thought, that he was sleeping on the job, but didn't because she hadn't any proof. "Either that or Mars isn't right for him," she finished weakly.

"Hmm," Randy said noncommittally. The grizzled veteran of a dozen roundups and drives had his own thoughts about Tommy but, like Becky, wasn't going to voice them without proof. He handed her her saddle bags and rifle. "Well, at least he shows up after you ping him. Here. I packed a slab of lasagna for you tonight. We've been here for a week, so I've got time to cook some. There's a stove sheet in there, too, so warm 'er up first."

"Thanks, Randy!" She loved lasagna and certainly hadn't expected it out here. She opened the saddle pouch and took an appreciative sniff, the self-heating food wrap letting out enough of the spicy scent to make her mouth water. "I can't wait!"

She snatched up her helmet and glanced inside. 12:65.

"See you boys around 4:30! Bye!"

They all waved and continued talking. Becky fetched Digger and was soon mounted on the small, fast, machine and racing south toward the herd.

She'd reached a small humpback ridge and was negotiating around it when a light blinded her from the right. Digger suddenly gave out a squeal and lurched to a stop, plowing into the Martian soil and throwing Becky over the handles.

She let out a startled shout but kept her head. Twisting in midair, she brought her feet around and turned a potentially dangerous unhoving into a relatively safe landing. She slipped on some hard rock, but was otherwise fine. Something that was impossible to do on Earth was easily performed on Mars. She wondered how Texas Tommy would fare if he...

"Evening, little lady!" A voice snarled just as two powerful arms clamped around her. She struggled and screamed, but the campfire was several kilometers away. She heard another chuckle and in the glimmer of her hov's headlight saw a large form walk up to her. There were several others behind him, working on her bike. The man, foul smelling and ugly, reached a hand into her open faceplate and ripped out the display controls and comlink.

"12:70. Right on time. Now we can get all cozy," he said in a warm voice coated in ice. Becky felt her stomach turn.

"Let me go! What do you think you're doing?" she accused, mustering up her will. "The others will come out and look for me any minute."

"I don't think so. Right, Tommy?"

"Thas' right, Four Beers," Tommy said. He was the one holding her, with his Terran strength. She felt her skin crawl. "They're worthless cow hands, girl. They don't want no trouble. They'll just say 'Boo hoo! Mrs. Elam! We done what we could! Boo hoo!' and go off to find another job."

"When I don't report to the herd, you can just bet that..."

"Shut up!" Four Beers barked, clamping a hand over her mouth. He was staring off to the south. "Who's that?"

They all turned, Tommy included, so Becky could see. Still some distance away, a hov light was bobbing and jerking and making their way toward them.

"Hurry!" Four Beers hissed. "Get her bike behind the ridge! Everyone out of sight. Tommy!" He turned toward her captor. "You're responsible for her. If she so much as whimpers, you snap her neck. We'll make it look like an accident later." Within seconds they were all safely hidden from sight.

The hov approached them, but the rider must have seen the rocky outcropping they were hiding in, for he swung wide to avoid the rough terrain. He passed them while still a hundred meters out and made for the campfire. Becky heard someone curse softly.

"Boss, that's a Dustdevil hov. Model 5, I think."

Four Beers swore violently. "I didn't need to hear that, Book! Only Red Marshals ride those. That means Butt messed up the job." Becky saw him go still as he thought for a minute in the quiet Martian night. All that had happened in the past five minutes made everything seem unreal to Becky. That is, until Tommy twisted her arm to remind her how very real and very dangerous it was. Finally, Four Beers nodded, as if making a decision.

"Okay, this will still work. Put the kid back on her bike and tow it. We'll fix up the accident next to the herd. The other two hands will come in when they hear her cryin' and we'll run the herd clean over the three of them. Marshal or no marshal, by the time they put things together, the beef will be cooking in a Vermilion mine town restaurant and we'll be in Enla, livin' the high life."

 

"Evening, gents," Roids called out quietly as he approached the fire cautiously, holding his helmet under his left arm. There were three men standing around the fire, holding their cups in their left hands. Off behind the chuck hov, Roids could make out a slight movement. He chuckled and touched his badge.

"Cagey bunch, huh?"

"We ride for the brand, Marshal," one by the fire said. A tough, compact man in around twenty, his gray eyes were friendly, but his right hand lay alongside his gun. "What can we do for you?"

"I'm Roids Cavanaugh," Roids said. He pointed toward the chuck hov. "If Randy there weren't so shy, he'd tell you he knows me."

"That you, Roids?" Randy called out. He stepped into the open, setting down the heavy caliber ripper gun he was holding. "I thought you was east of here." He gave a big grin. Everyone visibly relaxed and introductions were made.

"I was, Randy," Roids said, taking a sip from the cup of coffee Randy had given him. "Only I got two patrols this month, what with Lisa laid up with a shoulder wound."

"She's a good Marshal," Paul said with a nod. "She'll do fine if she lives." He glanced at Roids. "How she doin'?"

"Cranky and nasty. Meaner than usual, too, since they won't let her up and about," Roids said. "An' she's doin' lots better than Gout Benson, who tried to take her in the Pink Eye saloon down at the Valley Bottom Iron Mine. His problems are over, though." They nodded. It was a hard planet, was Mars. Those that stepped outside the rules paid dearly. "Lisa's also doin' lots better than Butt Johnson," Roids added.

Eyes swung up, waiting.

"Butt tried to jump me about four hours ago, down on the floor of the Marineris, three hundred clicks south of here." Roids squatted by the fire and took another swallow of the hot, black liquid. He didn't waste time by finishing a story that could have but one ending. "Butt was with Four Beers and his gang, last we heard. An' his bike said he came from here."

The fire crackled and popped, the only sound for several seconds. Finally, Paul stirred. He tossed the dregs from his cup and walked to the chuck hov, where he set down the cup and pulled out his rifle, a long range gun that fired a series of three exploding shells at once.

"I reckon we better go check on our little Missy and her mom's cattle." There was a hard click of metal on metal as Paul rammed home the first pack of ammo. "Marshal, you'd be doin' us a favor if you came along."

 

"Comfy?" Texas Tommy hissed, his face close beside Becky's. She lay on the open ground in a small hollow, her hands bound behind her and her mouth taped shut. She had managed to keep back the tears so far, but her racing heart belied her calm exterior. Texas Tommy grinned and put a hand to his ear.

"What's that, Miss Becky?" he taunted. "Nothin' to say? How strange. You were always bossing me around before. Oh, maybe it's this tape. Here, let me help." He yanked it off, but she remained silent despite the pain. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction.

"You're not going to get away with this, Tommy. Help me now, and I'll make sure the boys don't kill you."

Tommy laughed and kicked her. "You don't get it, do you? You're all alone out here. Only Zeke and Martin will find you, and only when all three of you are about to die." His face turned nasty. "I always hated you. You an' your buddy-buddy talk an' thinkin' you know everything. I got me a good mind..."

"How's it going, Tommy?" Four Beers appeared at the top of the hollow, looking down on both of them.

"All done here, Murphy," Tommy said, still staring at Becky. "Things couldn't be better."

"Yes, they could."

Tommy turned and looked up at Four Beers, who was holding a gun on him. Without giving Tommy a chance, Four Beers fired, hitting Tommy in the stomach.

"That should get them here fast. Sorry, Tommy, but it's gotta be this way. Oh, we'll make it look like a spooked herd ran down the girl and the other two hands, just like you'd planned. But only after they'd found you trying to rustle some cattle and killed you." Four Beers held up the pistol. "Zeke VanHorn carries a gun just like this. Now the law's got two things to discover; an accidental stampede and a botched rustling by some stupid Terran who was gunned down by a cowhand before you were all killed. They'll never look for the real cause." He brought the pistol up again. "See ya, Tommy."

"You bastard!" Tommy shouted, clawing at his stomach with bloody fingers. "You back stabbing bastard!"

"You got it all wrong, Tommy." The gun bellowed and Tommy slammed back to the ground, dead. "I'm a front shooting bastard."

 

"Yo! Zeke!" Martin skimmed up on his hov, slide swerving it to a sudden stop alongside Zeke's Bronc Eight. Both bikes gave a slick buck as their antigravity fields touched, but both men easily settled them. The reason for Martin's rush was obvious; they'd both heard the shots. "Where do you think?"

"Other side of the heard," Zeke said. "And it wasn't her rifle, I know that." He punched the comlink. "Miss Becky? You okay out there?" Nothing came back except static. "Becky? You all right?" Still nothing. Nor was there anything on the camp comlink when he tried that. To Zeke, that meant the red flag was up.

"Something's wrong, Martin. I can't raise the camp, either. Gotta be jammed. Get loaded, boy. I think someone's trying for the herd."

"And those shots?" Martin was only ten, very excited and a trifle scared, but he'd do his job. He reached down and snapped the safety off his pistol. "You think they got Miss Becky?" he asked, then hurriedly added, "I mean, captured her?" The alternative, even implied, was too difficult to think about.

"Don't know. Let's find out, all right?" He pointed into the darkness to the east. "You come 'round the herd from that side. I'll take the west. Stay just inside the cattle. It'll slow you down a mite, but won't give anyone an easy shot. Go."

They parted and worked their way through the large pasture. It was possible to treat Martian soil with Terran minerals, bacteria and nutrients and grow a prairie grass which was waist high and deep blue. But drawing the needed moisture out of the air - even the treated atmosphere of sealed canyons - allowed for only one hectare of grass per thousand hectares of space, which was why even modest ranches sprawled for dozens and even hundreds of square kilometers. As a result, the eight hundred head gathered so far were lazing the night away over ten hectares and it took the men ten minutes to reach Becky, tied up and lying beside a motionless Texas Tommy.

Zeke quickly swung his leg over his bike and dropped the meter distance to the bottom of the hollow. "Keep your eyes open, boy! I'll get Miss Becky and Tommy."

One quick look at Tommy told Zeke he was dead. He couldn't tell with Becky, though, since her faceplate was closed. Leaning over her, he touched the override code and removed the helmet. Becky was sweaty and gasping, her air having not turned on because of the ruined circuitry.

"Trap!" she gasped. "It's a trap! Four Beers and..."

There was a loud series of booms to the north, and the flash of flame as the preset fire bombs ignited the grasses. As though the entire canyon pasture had been tilted violently on one end, the cattle lunged to their feet and thundered at them. Zeke called for his bike and waved at Martin.

"Get out of here, boy! Miss Becky an' I will hightail it out on my bike! See if you can push those cattle away from us!"

Martin nodded and gunned his engine, bringing the bike around sharply to the north. He accelerated forward, then jerked back off his bike, falling into the hollow even as the echo of the shot sounded. Blood soaked his left side, where he'd been shot. His bike drifted off, too far to get to in the little time they had left. His own bike would be too slow with two and anyway there were three of them. Grimly, Zeke pulled his pistol out and looked at Becky.

"Sorry, ma'am, but this ain't so good. I'm going to try to drop the lead cow and see if I can build up a barrier."

"You can't, Zeke!" Becky cried. "They'll shoot you!"

"They can try. You stay here." He took one step up, but then heard a loud shout on his right.

It was Phil, screaming his lungs out, as he, Hank and another man raced down on them. Becky's heart stopped, then thudded harder as she recognized the third man as Roids Cavanaugh!

Leaving Becky for a moment, Zeke leaned over the fallen Martin and helped him to his feet. His was badly wounded, but would pull through if he didn't get stampeded to death in the next couple minutes.

Phil jerked hard on his bike's reins - a more responsive and flexible control method when working with cattle - and it screamed to a halt, throwing up red dust everywhere. He had no sooner stopped than he was moving again, the injured Martin sitting behind him, gamely holding on to both Phil and his own wounded side. Hank and Roids pulled up right behind him. Roids reached for Becky, so Zeke got on Hank's bike, trusting the Marshal. Hank pulled out with a yell, gunning the bike to the southeast, nimbly avoiding the bullets that snapped up dust as they barely missed the fleeing hov.

Becky ran for Roids’ bike and climbed on the seat behind him. The thunder of the approaching herd was deafening now. She slapped him on the back and he hit the power.

The bike lurched, then sank to the sand as a heavy slug took it directly in the antigravity node. The engine started a high pitch whining as it tried and failed to overcome the loss of antigravity, then abruptly shut down. They were trapped!

Roids never hesitated. Grabbing Becky around the waist, he threw her to the hollow bank closest to the onrushing cattle, then clambered up the side. Becky watched in the light of the wildfire as Roids' hand flashed to his holster. His gun leapt to his hand and even above the thundering roar of hooves she heard the trip fire hammering of his shots as he desperately tried to form a barrier of dead cattle, their only hope against the terrified herd that raced toward them.

 

"Get him!" Four Beers shouted from the top of the ridge just west of the stampeding herd where he and the rest of the gang were watching the eerie nightmare unfold. Far below, several steers had already staggered and fallen in front of the Marshal whose gun seemed like a living thing. "Drop that son of a..."

"All the same to you, boys," a sharp voice behind them said, "we'd rather you didn't."

Four Beers turned around and saw Randy, Paul, and the other DVB hands standing there, guns out and cocked.

No! He thought savagely. It wasn't right! Everything was timed perfectly! Every detail, every betrayal, every plan without flaw. He swore at them and his gang tensed, ready for his lead.

"Clear out!" he shouted, his own hand ready to bring up his already drawn gun. "You're just a bunch of cattle herders! You don't stand a chance against us. It's not worth what you're getting paid!"

"Mister," Paul said in a cold, hard voice, "Money's got nothing to do with it. We ride for the brand. The Marshal's protecting Miss Becky right now, and Miss Becky's the brand."

Unable to believe the man's nerve, Four Beers jerked his gun up.

 

"You need to find a tamer hobby, ma'am," Roids said quietly to the trembling girl as he reloaded his gun. "Seems every time I see you, you got a gun to your head or a messa cattle comin' down on you." He smiled at her and holstered his pistol. "I reckon we'll be okay, though."

She rose on shaky feet and clung to Roids. The herd was still racing into the dark, but they had all passed by. All save the eight who lay dead only three meters in front of the hollow, their strewn carcasses looking surreal in the flickering light of the dying wildfire.

In the distance, they heard the sudden roll of man made thunder on a small ridge to the west. It continued for several seconds, then died off.

"What... what's that?" Becky whispered, finding it hard to talk.

"My guess? I'd say Four Beers and his gang found out a cow hand is tough clean through. Should check, though." He walked to the bike and flipped on the still working comlink.

"Whatcha say, Randy? Any problems?"

"Paul's gotta scratch. Just shows he's full of Martian sand."

"Four Beers and his gang?"

"They get to keep being a gang. Just in a warmer locale." Randy's chuckle came over the comlink. "None of 'em will hold soup anymore, though. How's Miss Becky?"

"She's fine. Mebbe a little scared."

"Her?" Randy said incredulously. "I'd like to see that!"

"I’d recommend against it, Randy," Roids replied, winking at Becky. "I seen it twice and so far the look ain't worth the ride."