Becky was probably waiting for breakfast. Normally, Vickie’s headstrong daughter would fix up breakfast herself or just stuff something into her saddle bags for eating on the range later. But today was different, and she’d been promised breakfast. A last home-cooked meal. A last meal?

Vickie checked one final time in the mirror. Yes, she decided, all signs of last night’s crying were gone. And this morning’s crying, too. Looking deep into the reflection of her own eyes, Vickie saw fear. Fear that would never leave. First Dan. Now Becky?

No, she thought. Not Becky. This was different than with Dan. Her long dead husband had been a gentle soul and a good husband and father, but he’d been a poor cattleman. It was only because of the hard work of Vickie, Becky and the cowhands that the DVB was a prosperous ranch. Dan had been an inept... well, he hadn’t been the most... Vickie smiled at her continued inability to see Dan’s faults, so brightly did his good side shine even after the years had erased his poor efforts.

In that, Becky’s good side was the image of her father. Ten years old today, she was going to live a life that would have made her father proud.

If she lived.

Vickie voiced a quick tone of disapproval at the unbidden thought and looked away. Wait. What was that last flash in her eyes in the mirror? She didn’t return to check, for she knew it was the thing Dan would have felt: Pride.

“Hey, Mom!” Becky yelled from the kitchen. “How ‘bout a bite? Marshal Gomez is due in less than an hour!”

“Coming!” Vickie called back, no trace of sadness or fear in her voice. She hoped. She crossed through the living and dining rooms of their ranch home and into the kitchen. “Should I make some breakfast for the Marshal as well?”

Becky grinned at her mom as she came in.

“Do you mean Marshal Gomez?” she asked playfully. “Or Marshal Elam?”

Becky stood there, her surface suit already on, wearing the red iron badge of a Martian Territorial Ranger. Her eyes - shifting from light blue to cold steel depending on mood - were sparkling and her smile bordered on silly. Having graduated from both MCU and Territorial Law Enforcement Academy less than two weeks ago and only one week apart, Becky Elam was a woman more than ready to take on the world. Vickie smiled despite herself, almost as silly as her daughter, in both pride and joy.

Then her eyes flickered down to the Ruger Vaquero pistol strapped to Becky’s hip, and the smile faded. Becky caught the look and took her mother into her arms. Without warning, Vickie began crying.

“Mom,” she said in a low, peaceful tone, “you knew today was coming. I know how hard it is for you. I’m...” Here Becky’s eyes also misted. “I’m going to miss you and the guys and the DVB Ranch. But this is what I’ve wanted to do for three years now. Maybe longer, only I didn’t know it. And I’ve done everything I could to prepare myself and you.”

“I know! I know!” Vickie said, far sharper than she’d wanted to. “It’s just the thought of you lying dead out on the Martian surface...”

“Mom.”

Vickie looked up into her daughter’s eyes. When had Becky become such a confident woman? Such a self-assured law officer? She’d yet to go on her first patrol, but an incredible feeling of security washed over Vickie as Becky stood there. Security that came from knowing before her stood a Red Marshal.

“Mom?” Becky grinned a little. “How ‘bout that breakfast?”

Vickie nodded and smiled, then got about making steak and eggs. She couldn’t protect her daughter any more, but she could send her on her way with a full stomach.

Satisfied her mother was better now - she’d heard the sobs from the previous night - Becky went to her room to grab her bike bags and Winchester, then went outside to tend to Digger.

“How ya’ doin’, Digger?”

Digger, Becky’s hov bike for six years now, pinged a contented tone and kicked in its antigrav engines. The oft-modified bike raised a half meter into the air and tugged at the reigns that held it to the hitching rail.

“Hold on, Digger!” Becky laughed. “We’ll get the bad guys soon ‘nuff!”

Becky’s tone and speech patterns had taken on a more informal quality due to her association with fellow Rangers. It added an air of ease that helped put would-be lawbreakers off their guard and conveyed a sense of relaxed competence to the citizens. Oddly, she remembered, it was also a consideration in the suitability of a cadet making Ranger. The university had more than a few former cadets who’d been unable to adopt the relaxed drawl, indicating they were strung far too tight to really fit in well as a Red Marshal.

Fit in well. Becky grinned as she tossed her bags onto Digger and secured them. Fitting in at the Academy had been dead easy. After all, Becky was the girl who’d saved Roids Cavanaugh and had killed her first - and so far only - outlaw at the age of seven.

The instructors - all former Red Marshals who could no longer serve active duty because of crippling injuries - were tough on Becky. They were tougher on her than on any other cadet. And she’d thrived in it. Having been raised on the DVB ranch - she was the “B” in the brand - what came in as a tough, quick-thinking girl left the Academy two years later as a tough, quick-thinking Ranger.

And her fellow students had also been tough. Although Becky didn’t want it, the story quickly spread of how she’d nailed Three-Eye Stevens while she stood over a nearly dead Roids Cavanaugh. She’d picked up her first cadet injury in a fist fight with doubters Ned Gilmore and Scott Witherspoon only two days in. The scars on her right hand were still visible if looked for.

The youngest in her class and the second youngest to graduate in six years from the academy, Becky nonetheless became a leader at the Academy. Between her reputation, cowhand toughness, and sharp mind, there was no surprise when she graduated fifth in her class. Not only that, but the legendary Ranger Roids Cavanaugh had attended Becky’s graduation ceremony and spent most of his time with her and her mother at the reception.

The youngest cadet to graduate the Academy had also been there to see Becky. Today she was a feared Red Marshal. That same Marshal was now pulling up to the house from the ranch’s main airlock.

Dixie Gomez was more trouble than any outlaw wanted to deal with. Tough, wiry and petite, Dixie had once been a beautiful young woman, her black hair, deep brown eyes and flashing smile a credit and match to her Hispanic ancestry. Her youth had been a life of wealth, rich foods and extensive travel to countless locations on throughout the solar system. Summers spent on Earth, Winters on Mars, Luna, or an orbital station. Many important people visited her father and he made many important decisions. These same people also knew his love for his daughter and told Dixie stories as she listened in rapt attention.

Then something had happened and one day Dixie had shown up at the Academy, her face bandaged up, left arm in a sling, and vengeance in her heart. She signed up for the Ranger program and sailed through, fighting anyone and everyone. Roids himself had taken her out on her first patrol; and brought her back slumped over her bike beside Guts Robinson, whom she’d outgunned while taking near fatal shots to her chest and neck.

Now battle-worn and hardened from years as a Red Marshal, Dixie still had her charming physical features and might still be considered a handsome woman. But her eyes no longer glowed with the happiness of her exotic and carefree childhood. The sparkles had been replaced by sparks. Sparks of fearlessness in a gun battle and determination to do her job regardless of personal risk. Dixie’s countless wounds - more than any Ranger ever, living or dead - gave proof to her single-mindedness in protecting the people of Mars from any who would seek to harm them. Like her mentor, Roids Cavanaugh, Dixie Gomez was the outlaw equivalent of Sure Death.

Not that Dixie was without her humorous side. She was well known at Headquarters in Enla for her practical jokes and good-natured ribbing of new recruits. And on patrol, Dixie was equally well known in the small mining and ranching towns north of Enla for her rowdy drinking and willingness to bust in the teeth of anyone who crossed her. Though rarely drunk, outlaws still knew to give her a wide birth when she’d had too much beer or Amaretto. Unlike most people who lost their coordination when drinking, Dixie was, if possible, even more deadly and more resolute to give as she got.

This morning, however, she was in a cheerful mood as she pulled her beat-up Dustdevil 4 hov bike to the hitching rail beside Digger. She approached smooth and easy and cut the engine, swung a leg over the saddle and slid off. Her helmet was already off, and her black hair flowed loosely over the helmet gasket. She grinned at Becky.

“Ready to go, Beck?”

“Yes’m!” Becky replied, irritated at the shrill tone in her voice. She sounded like a rookie. Which, she grudgingly admitted, was exactly what she was.

“Geez!” Dixie complained. “Don’t call me, ma’am! I’ll start thinking of retiring and go to knitting.” She laughed. “You’re closer to a lady right now than I am, Beck. I hope to change that in the next coupla months.” She stuck out her arm and each grabbed the other’s right forearm in greeting. “Call me Dixie.”

“You got it!” Becky laughed, then added, “Dixie.”

“Is that steak?” Dixie asked, sniffing.

“And eggs,” Becky acknowleged. “How ‘bout a bite? Mom can set another place.”

“Invitation enough!” Dixie laughed and followed her new partner up the steps to the house.

 

Becky’s stomach grumbled, letting her know it was still there and demanded attention. Her last home cooked meal was three weeks behind her and over two thousand kilometers to the south. She and Dixie had been living on rations for seventeen days now, and eggs were now just something Becky dreamed about.

A tiny blue light flashed on her helmet, indicating the late evening temperature was now at minus sixty degrees and falling. Without a thought, she toggled the controls with her chin and the heads up display shut off.

“Got him?” came the question over her comm.

Becky squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them and refocused through her rifle’s scope on the tiny light buried in the depths of the overhang. As she did, there was a slight flicker of the light. It was Stiff Knee Lamprey, limping his way in front of the single indicator light he’d forgotten to turn off.

“Yeah, I got him. He’s still awake.”

“No problem.” Dixie’s quiet voice came over the reserved and highly coded Ranger frequency. “Stiff’s not gonna move again tonight. Pull on back. I’ll meet you in thirty. Out.”

The comm went dead. Becky spent another five minutes looking through the scope and adjusting the various filters. Stiff Knee might have missed the one light, but other than that, neither he nor his bike showed up on infra, ultra, trembler, sonic or visual scans. He was a one-Realm outlaw, but he knew his trade. This was the first mistake he’d made in two weeks.

Patient far beyond her actual experience, Becky slipped quietly down the rock hummock, down to Digger. Only when she was at the bottom of the hummock did she turn off her scope. Shutting down a sensor scope in line of sight of a target gave a feedback ping to that target.

Jamming her Winchester into its scabbard, Becky swung a leg over Digger’s saddle and slapped the reigns. She didn’t need the precise control the reigns gave her; the bike’s hand grips were just fine. But growing up on a ranch, learning how to ride almost before she learned how to walk, Becky preferred reigns. She gave Digger a small kick with her boot heels and the hov moved out, directly away from the hummock and Stiff Knee’s hole.

Twenty minutes later, Becky eased Digger into the long, low cave that she and Dixie had picked for the night. Dixie was already there, fixing dinner. Dixie’s bike, Sidewinder, already had the seal shield up and the heater running, so Becky swung Digger sideways in the narrow space beside Winder and activated his seal shield, detection dampeners and sensors. Pulling her bedroll, rifle, rations and water from the saddle, Becky passed through the first shield and dropped her gear beside the fire. She gratefully took off her helmet and took a deep breath.

“Whew!” She sighed, sinking down on her still bound bedroll. “Six hours! I didn’t realize how boring our job could get.”

“That’s the most dangerous part of being a Marshal, Beck,” Dixie said, not lifting her head from the pan in which their dinner - bacon and potatoes - were frying. “It’s during the boring times that a body can get lazy. And lazy is the worst way to be caught in.”

Becky nodded and picked up her rifle. With well-practiced skill, she stripped the gun down and started cleaning it.

“What model is that Winchester, Beck?”

“An ought-four. Twenty millimeter case with twelve millimeter, 600 grain titanium slugs.”

“Big gun.”

“Uh-huh. It was my dad’s. Not a good cowhand gun, it’s too bulky for tight work. But I guess he thought bigger was better. I don’t need the power so much as I prefer the range. We had to scare off rustlers a few times back on the DVB, and dusting them from twelve hundred meters always gave them reason to reconsider.”

“That the one you used to bring down Three-Eye?” Dixie snatched up a few slices of bacon and passed the pan over to Becky.

“Thanks. Yup, the same one. Got him through the throat and shot off his helmet latch.”

“Ouch.”

“Guess so,” Becky shrugged, then gave a slow, sly smile, “I didn’t hear any complaints from Three-Eye, though.”

Dixie laughed and brought out her Remington Slasher pistol for cleaning. Becky put the pan back on the fire and stirred the potatoes.

“What’s the worst thing about the job, Dixie?” she suddenly asked.

Dixie stared into the flames for a long minute before answering.

“I’ve wondered that myself, Beck. The easy answer is that it’s different for every Marshal.” She grinned slightly. “’Cept Roids, of course. I don’t think he’s afraid of anything.”

“Yes, he is,” Becky replied, not even thinking. At Dixie’s surprised look, Becky said, “Roids is afraid of an innocent person in his care getting killed. I’ve seen it.”

Dixie nodded.

“If there was anything, that’d be it. But a good Marshal uses his or her fear to be even better. Roids does.”

“How ‘bout you, Dixie? What’s your fear?”

“That one day my past will catch up with me,” she whispered, almost to herself. Becky turned her head, embarrassed to have exposed the Marshal to such a private memory. Yet Dixie continued, quietly speaking to Becky. “I was a different person then, Beck. Full of frills and giggles and proper speech. I... I lived a useless life, and when the time came for me to protect the ones I loved most, I failed.” She shook her head and snatched a forkful of potatoes. “Hot! And good! Pass them over.”

“So that’s the answer then? Every Marshal’s worst fear is different?”

“Pretty much. Unless it’s getting shot through. If it’s not first on a list, it’s pretty high.”

“Shot through?” Becky asked. “Why?”

“’Cause we work alone, mostly. If we catch a slug high in the body and it goes through, there’s no way to reach the second hole. Best you can do is press against something and hope the air don’t leak out. ‘Course, that means you’re pinned, an’ whoever shot you to start with will have an easy job of finishing you.”

Becky nodded, understanding. On the DVB, the hands all worked in pairs, and it had saved many lives. A fall, a lucky shot from a rustler, a gore. Any of them could be tended with a partner, but were fatal if alone.

“So what’s the call for tomorrow, Dixie?” Becky asked, stretching some and putting away her gun cleaning kit.

“I reckon we’ll take Stiff around dawn. He’s drifting south to Willoughby, so that rumor we heard about him joining the North Cap Gang was wrong.” She looked down the disassembled gun barrel and checked it for dust. “Can’t say I’m surprised. There’s not a lot to Stiff Knee. He’s a loner.”

“Gotta admit, though,” Becky said as she worked the lever of her now clean Winchester. “He’s been pretty handy for learning stalking skills.”

Dixie laughed, reloaded her pistol, and reached for the pan.

 

Almost dawn.

Becky was back at her post, rifle scope on and pointed at Stiff Knee’s hideout. For the past hour Stiff had been moving around and slowly packing up. In the gathering light, it was possible to actually make out a silhouette. The shield shimmered on infra and the trembler nudged somewhat. Stiff was getting ready to go.

“He’s started his bike,” she said conversationally into her comlink. “And the shield’s dropping.”

“All right,” Dixie replied. “I’ll face him down. You keep him settled.”

“Gotcha.” A pause. “Hold on. My trembler just maxxed out, and the ultra... He’s coming out hard, Dixie!”

“Stop him. I’m mounting up. You follow.”

Becky didn’t hear the end of Dixie’s orders because the shield suddenly collapsed and a cloud of pressurized dust shot out of the cave. Inside the dust cloud Becky could just make out a dark object.

Damn! she thought. I want him alive. If he’d come out quiet, I could plant a shot in front of him to get his attention while Dixie faced him down. But like this, we’d be chasing him for another two weeks. And I’ve had enough of that, Becky decided. Gotta chance a drive shot.

The image of Stiff’s old Harley Wildfire flashed on the heads up. Becky lined up on the drive mass converter, led the shot, then squeezed off a round. She immediately jacked another bullet into the chamber, sighted the target and fired.

The bike veered abruptly. It simultaneously lost horizontal drive and initiated emergency shut down procedures. It shuddered and tossed Stiff Knee over the handlebars, not fifty meters from Becky.

She worked the lever of her Winchester and rolled over the top of the small ridge she’d been hiding behind. Bouncing to her feet, she closed the range between them to five meters, then skid to a stop. Stiff Knee was rising to his feet, his hand reaching for the worn out Smith & Wesson pistol he carried.

“Don’t try it, Stiff,” Becky said on the common link. “My rifle will put you down faster than it did your bike.”

Stiff Knee turned slowly toward Becky, his hands moving away from his body slightly, but not going up.

“Unbuckle the belt,” she ordered. Where was Dixie?

“Why?” Stiff shrugged. “I know you. You’re Elam. A rookie. You don’t have the nerve yet.”

“Tell that to Three-Eye Stevens.”

He laughed.

“Heard about that. Only you had Cavanaugh with you. It’s easy to have guts when you got a lobo like Roids with you.” His gun hand drifted lower. “I wonder how you’ll do when you’re alone? Still have the guts?”

“Yup.”

“She also has a partner, Stiff.”

His hand abruptly froze as he recognized Dixie’s voice.

“Gomez, huh?” he said. “And from the back, too.” He carefully unbuckled his gun belt and released it. It fell to the red ground and kicked up dust in the thin Martian atmosphere. “I don’t think I’ll try those odds.”

 

“Eat up, Stiff.”

Becky passed a plate of beef and bread through Digger’s shield. Tonight Digger was on the inside, projecting out of yet another of the endless caves that pockmarked the planet. Winder was on the outside, projecting his shield in, creating an effective cell for Stiff, who sat against the cave wall, his helmet inside with Dixie and Becky.

He took the plate without comment and began eating. Satisfied he was still being a model prisoner, Becky tapped Digger’s control panel and the shield shimmered. They could still see and hear Stiff, but he was cut off from them.

Becky sat down and picked up her tabinal. Her first official report and already she hated doing it. Dixie was lying on her bedroll, dozing until her shift in three hours.

Becky tried to finish the report, but question 17 made no sense. “In the event of suspect arrest resulting in nonfatal wound,” she read aloud, hoping it would get her through the fog, “Insert the suspect’s prior CID with proper injury code, unless the arrest resulted in a mortal wound - though not immediately fatal - precede CID with Marshal JLF number, provided identity of suspect is verified as a non-Mars resident, in which case alter the CID and JLF to reflect UITA ID, with PIC being the same.”

She shook her head and tossed the tabinal aside. Scrounging around in her pack, she tossed another chunk of rockwood onto the fire. Years of working the line back at the ranch told her the oxygen generating fuel would last a good four hours.

Digger gave a brief tone, indicating an incoming message. Becky detached the headset from her helmet and opened the channel.

“Marshal Elam.”

“Marshal, this is Willoughby Station, Marshal Conners. Is Dixie there?”

“Yep, though she’s catching some shuteye. What can I do for you, Conners?”

“A regional alert just went up, Enla to Timonium Ridge and north. The North Cap Gang is heading south. To Willoughby.”

With us in the middle. Oh, joy, Becky thought sardonically.

She frowned. To Willoughby? The gang was known for their brutal ways in and around the Polar City metropolitan area, but nowhere else. Willoughby was far outside their normal stomping grounds.

“Where are they now?” she asked, thinking back to that rumor about Stiff and the gang.

“Not known. Just that they were coming here. No solid reason why, either. Just rumor.” That answered Becky’s second question. “What’s your status?”

“Dixie and I are about three days north of Willoughby. We have Stiff Knee Lamprey in custody and are headed to Enla.”

“Take my advice, Marshal. Make Enla as quickly as possible. Head out early and stay out late. That rumor I mentioned is the gang’s hunting Lamprey.”

Hunting? she thought.

“We’d heard they were connected, but as partners,” Becky said slowly, still trying to figure it out.

“Either way, if they’re looking for you, it would be best they didn’t find you unless you were willing to give up Lamprey.”

“That’s not even funny as a joke,” Becky said. “Thanks for the alert and advice, Marshal Conners. I’ve a hunch we’ll be leaving earlier than planned tomorrow morning.”

“I’ll notify Enla HQ of your position and estimated arrival. Good luck, Elam. Conners out.” The link went silent.

Becky put her helmet down and stared into the flames. She glanced at Stiff, half-afraid he’d heard the conversation, despite the sound shield. But the outlaw was lying down, apparently fast asleep. Why would the North Cap Gang want him dead? Stiff was a petty thief. Mean, yes. And known to have a quick temper. He hadn’t killed anyone yet that the law knew about, but there’d been rumors.

Rumors. Both the curse and blessing of law enforcement everywhere, it was a necessary evil when administering justice on Mars. Spread to the point that all Marshals traveled alone - except in training - rumors were what put the law where it needed to be at the right time. Or drew the lawman to his or her death when the rumor was false, or planted.

Dixie stirred and sat up. She looked at Becky while she rubbed her eyes.

“Bad news, right?”

Becky nodded. “You expecting bad news?”

“Always am,” Dixie replied.

 

A storm was rising.

Mars went through periods of long and vast stillness, where its thin nitrogen atmosphere was as breathless as the planet was lifeless. Numbing cold, dropping to the low hundreds, froze everything above, on and under the surface. Nothing moved except the sun, moons and stars.

Then a small swirl would lift up the dust. Halfhearted at first, this puff of chilled carbon dioxide would warm slightly and rise, the harbinger of blindness.

The puff became a gentle breeze, which in turn became a steady breeze. Within a matter of hours - minutes, in some cases - what had once been a flutter of air had become a gale force wind; pushing dust at speeds that ate into rock, metal, and surface suits. It destroyed communication links, transformed state of the art hover bikes into motionless chunks of worthless metal, and drove humans - outlaw and Marshal alike - to their utmost limits of survival.

Most disturbing, however, was the sound. Mars’ thin atmosphere, a mere one percent of Earth’s density, transformed loud noise into merest whispers. Heavy gunfire sounded like firecrackers. Explosions no more than handclaps. But when the atmosphere was moving as completely as it did during a big storm, the low, throbbing moan of the wind ate at one’s nerves even as the dust at one’s being.

And this was going to be a big storm.

“Whatcha think, Dixie?” Becky asked as they moved steadily south into the approaching maelstrom. “Push on, hunker down, or turn tail?” They were one long day out since the second North Cap Gang warning came through, but still more than thirty hours from Enla. Help would not be coming for them.

Dixie slowed Winder to a stop and considered. Becky eased Digger alongside. Stiff Knee’s wounded bike parked about ten meters off, controlled entirely by the slave control on Digger. A less than happy Stiff Knee straddled the bike, secured to the saddle by leg cuffs.

“Well, we’re not going to get much further. That storm’s no more than an hour in front of us. Less, if we’re headin’ into it.

“If we head back or hunker down, we’ll get caught up to by Knife Jackson and his boys, if they really are after Stiff here.” Dixie looked at Stiff and grinned. “How ‘bout that, Stiff?”

“I’d rather not,” he said sourly.

“I kinda guessed that. Don’t know how you got Knife’s dander up, but you surely did a job.” Dixie switched over to the private link. “Beck, we can’t go forward, so we may as well pick the spot to put up a fight.”

Becky pointed off to the east. In the distance was the dimly seen Kisambo Badlands.

“We’re at the Issedon Tholus now. If we gunned it, we might reach Kisambo before the storm. If not Kisambo, then Gandzani.”

Becky heard Dixie chuckle over the comm link.

“You sure have a high opinion of your opinion, don’cha, Beck?” she chided. Becky’s ears burned. Fortunately, Dixie continued. “Well, I’m gettin’ a pretty good opinion of you, too. All right, it’s Kisambo.”

They started their bikes up and swung east. The storm, indifferent to their decision, continued plowing northward. Behind them, Stiff Knee swallowed hard but didn’t say anything.

He knew what might be waiting for them.

 

Becky reached down and hand pumped the mass feeder for the tenth time in ten minutes. The ratio imbalance alarm shut off and Digger went back to his smooth gait. Digger had been a gift from her dad back on her fourth birthday, and she’d never had another bike. At first too small to ride him, as she’d grown, so had Digger. Ranch hands who’d worked their bikes to top running order modified Digger over and over through the years as Becky took on the life and job of a cowhand. They’d done a final overhaul while Becky was away and now Digger was a bike that would do any Marshal proud. Not that anyone else would ever ride him.

But as wonderful as Becky thought Digger was, the reliable hovbike was straining now in the vicious crosswinds of the dust storm. She’d been out in worse - “pampered” was not a word used to describe Becky Elam’s life - but not for this long. Seven hours and counting. She and Dixie had mentally crossed off any chance at making Kisambo and were now doing everything they could to reach the safety of the much smaller but closer rotgut town of Gandzani.

“How much more can your bike take!?” Dixie yelled over the comlink. The static from the storm had nearly disrupted even short range communication.

“Not much!” Becky yelled back. “But more than Stiff’s Harley. It was pretty banged up to begin... Oh, hell!” The slaver suddenly began flashing yellow, reporting an unscheduled stop by Stiff Knee’s bike. “Dixie! I think Stiff’s bike just gave out!”

“Okay! You check it out! I’ll hold up!”

The Harley Wildfire had indeed failed. It was slumped in the dirt, its nose buried a half meter into the mound it had dug up. A rather dejected looking Stiff Knee was still straddling it. A quick energy scan told Becky what she already guessed, the converter couldn’t handle the worsening ratio of mass to air/fuel mixture and had eaten itself from the inside out.

“Why didn’t you keep up the manual pump?” Becky yelled at Stiff over the common circuit.

“I did! But it wasn’t enough. Your shot to my drive unit damaged the power coupling. I was bleeding power the whole time!” Stiff swore. “I really liked this bike, Marshal!”

“Sorry!” Becky said, feeling only a small twinge of guilt. “Your fault, though! You picked the outlaw trail.” She coded the release numbers into her wrist controller and the cable popped free. “We have to make it to shelter soon, Stiff, or we all die! I’m putting you on my bike and ridin’ behind you!”

“Thanks, Marshal Elam!” He worked himself free of the ruined hov and walked over to Becky. “You can trust me!”

“No, I can’t!” She slipped the thong off her Vaquero. “But you can trust a .45 slug if you do anything I don’t take to!”

They mounted Digger, Becky behind, and headed over to Dixie, her rifle out and aimed at Stiff. Becky shifted to the encrypted Ranger channel.

“Ready, Dixie! I explained to Stiff here I’d limited my options in dealing with him to one: My Ruger. He’ll take it serious, I hope! I’d hate to spill all that blood on Digger. He’s particular about who bleeds on him!”

Dixie chuckled and waved Becky ahead, then took up the rear. This left Stiff with two Marshals at his back and no way to know what they were talking about.

They made Gandzani an hour later.

 

At no time in Gandzani’s legitimate life had there been a reason for its existence. In point of fact, Gandzani had never had a legitimate life. Built a year after Kisambo became a boom town for miners, Gandzani had been thrown up by shyster businessmen looking to make a quick realm selling shoddy supplies at exorbitant prices to the unwary Terran prospector racing up from the Enla spaceport to stake a claim.

The mines played out quick - less than two years after discovery, but Kisambo remained on, having found a new boom business; as a tourist attraction and retirement community.

Gandzani lived on, too. It quickly closed its door to the miners who weren’t coming anyway, and opened them to those who had no qualms about being on the wrong side of the law. It still preyed on Kisambo’s customers, but now with phony maps and cut-rate hotels that were little more than disreputable brothels. The color of Gandzani drifted from light gray to dark. But it still hadn’t gone to black. Honest people and even an honest business or two still remained.

It was to one of these businesses, Hogswallow Hollow Dry Goods, that Dixie, Becky and a increasingly depressed Stiff Knee went to. The one street in town was abandoned as though it serviced a ghost town. As the two Rangers moved their bikes up the deserted street, dust swirled and blew in every direction. Every gap in the buildings brought a hard buffeting from crosswinds. The only sign of life in all of Gandzani were each structure’s airlock indicator lights and a rare dim glow from a particularly large picture window.

Hogswallow’s was the last on their right, the east side of the street as the bikes traveled north. Tucked against a crater wall like the northern third of town, Hogswallow’s was able to have a ghost door for an airlock. Planed energy that could block out or allow in light, sound and physical matter as programmed, it made for easy entry and egress from the place of business. It was the only one of its kind in Gandzani; proof that honesty could be profitable. Becky, looking over Stiff’s shoulder, prodded her now drawn pistol against his back.

“Pull up here, Stiff, then sit still. I’ll get off first and let you know when you can.” The outlaw nodded.

“Looks like someone’s up and about,” Dixie commented as she pulled Winder beside Digger at the hitching rail and dismounted. “I’ll check it out while you take care of Stiff.” Her rifle at the ready and her pistol loose in the holster, Dixie stepped up on the stone walk. There was a static hum over the comlink as she passed through the ghost door.

Becky dismounted and backed up, pulling her Winchester free of the saddle scabbard as she did.

“All right, Stiff. You can dismount. On the left and keep your back to me.” He did as told. “Good. How ‘bout we get out of this dust?”

They had gone no more than a few meters when there was the sound of a gunshot and Dixie was thrown out the door backwards.

Forgetting Stiff, Becky ran up to her wounded partner. She holstered her pistol and worked the action on her rifle. Not bothering to find a target, she poured eight rounds into the doors.

“Marshal!” It was Stiff.

Cursing herself for giving him an opening, she swung around and realized he was yelling for help, not gloating. Another shot sounded out, this one from the other side of the street, and hit Stiff in the right leg. He cursed and dropped to one knee. The shooter, armed with a pistol, was aiming carefully for a final shot.

“Too bad for you, Stiff. Shoulda’ stayed with North Cap.”

A Ranger never gave up her prisoner. Not to outlaws, not to vigilantes, not even to death. Firing quickly with her rifle, Becky stepped in front of Stiff just as the shooter fired.

Becky felt a white hot wire sear into her right shoulder. Staggered, the impact of the bullet forced her to drop the Winchester. A second shot boomed, but went over her head as she collapsed to her knees. Behind and to her right came more gunshots. They’d been caught in a trap!

Cursing her already weak and numb right hand, Becky used all her strength to draw her Vaquero. Her would-be killer was getting ready to fire, so she deftly border-shifted to the left hand and fired from the hip. One. Two. Three!

Each round hit outlaw. The first in his knee, the second to the helmet and the third to the stomach. He fired into the ground then fell forward, dead. Becky ignored him. She had more pressing concerns. Rather, more pressure concerns.

Her heads up wailed and flashed as it vented life-giving atmosphere and life-keeping pressure. Becky holstered her gun, butt first. Her right arm was now useless. Using her left hand, she slipped a patch from her right arm kit and slapped it hard on the hole, wincing in pain. The bloody bubbles stopped and the hole was sealed. She crossdrew her gun and spun around.

Dixie was on one knee, calmly firing round after round into Hogswallow’s with her Remington pistol. There were no return shots. Blood dripped from Dixie’s left arm, and was lost in the dust before it could even strike the ground. Becky heard a click as the comlink activated.

“I’m ready to find a place to hole up, Beck,” Dixie said in a calm voice. “How ‘bout you?”

“I could use a breather, sure.” Becky tried to sound as nonchalant as her partner, but it didn’t come across. She was distracted by the still flashing pressure warning lights. “I’ll grab Stiff. Here, my Vaquero has six rounds left.”

Dixie holstered her Remington and caught Becky’s tossed Ruger. She continued firing while Becky retrieved her Winchester, then helped Stiff Knee to his one good leg. They moved off to a building across the street with Dixie laying a covering fire. They made it to the airlock and got in without further incident. Dixie sealed the airlock and set it to explosive exit. That would make them think twice about closing in. That is, if outlaws ever thought.

Becky helped a limping Stiff through the lock and into a small, neat office space on the right. She released the outlaw into a chair, then sagged against the wall. The Winchester slipped from her left hand and clattered to the floor. She sank slowly down, bringing her knees up. She knew she had to secure the building, but didn’t seem to have any strength left. Maybe if she just took a little nap. Yeah, that’d do it. A quick forty winks and she’d be right as red. Maybe eighty.

“Hey, Beck. I got the front. You see what’s available around here to get us out of this spot.”

Becky didn’t have the strength to answer, nor even to keep her eyes open. They fluttered once, then closed, as she slumped to the floor. Dixie turned toward her.

“Hey, Beck! Now’s not the time... Damn it!”

A meter above Becky’s head down to her unconscious form, the wall was smeared heavily with a wide swath of dark red blood. She’d been shot through and had been unable to repair the hole that splayed out in an ugly four centimeter circle halfway between her right shoulder and spine.

 

Draw!

Becky’s hand jerked to her holster and grasped her .45 Vaquero. She didn’t know why she had to go for her gun, only that she did.

It wouldn’t budge. The thong was off and the signature grip recognized her hand, but she couldn’t pull the gun.

“Draw!” shouted a shadowy figure, obscure by tons of blowing dust. Its pistol was halfway out.

“Draw!” it yelled again. The gun was coming level.

Finally her gun moved and she jerked it out. Too late. A molten boulder smashed into her, knocking her down. Another boulder, larger and even hotter, struck her from behind. Her suit was gone and she was standing in only her underwear on the Martian surface. The boulder hit her again while she gasped for air. Another one was coming at her. She dodged to the right, then...

“Whoa! Settle down, Marshal! We’re hunkered up safe and sound. No need to get riled!”

Becky’s eyes snapped open and focused on Stiff Knee Lamprey’s grinning face. Without thinking, her hand went to her holster. Nothing but soft cloth. Stiff watched the move and chuckled.

“Your Ruger’s on the bedpost to your right. It’s cleaned and loaded, too, Marshal. Don’t worry. I ain’t got the drop on you.”

“Where’s Marshal Gomez?” she asked, glancing around. Wherever they were now, it certainly wasn’t where she’d lost consciousness. That had been a place of business. This was a private home. And she was in a bed, the sheets pulled up to her shoulders. “Where are we?”

“We’re in Dusty Robbins’ house.” At her look, he added, “Dusty’s the owner of Hogswallow’s. He brung us here after he found out you an’ Dixie had cleaned out the North Cap Gang. Leastways, the ones that got here first.

“The Marshal’s upstairs, armed to the teeth and lookin’ for targets. She didn’t much appreciate you gettin’ shot first time out. Took it real personal.

“Dusty’s in the great room, outside your door, keepin’ an eye out. So’s his son, Rusty. His other son, Dusty Jr., an’ his daughter...”

“Lusty?” Becky ventured.

Stiff Knee guffawed.

“Nah. Her name’s Liz. They’re upstairs helpin’ Dixie.”

“Dixie? Kinda personal for someone bringing you in, isn’t it, Stiff?”

He rubbed a rough hand over his grizzled face, thinking on it.

“I guess so. Only maybe I ain’t being brought in no more. ‘Sides, you’re the one bringing me in, Marshal.” He stood up while Becky tried to figure out what that meant. “I’ll tell her you’re awake. It’s been two days, ya’ know.”

“No, I didn’t.”

He laughed again. “No, ma’am, I don’t suppose you would. Anyways, I’ll let her know. We can use another gun.”

He left, turning on the privacy door behind him. Before the door closed though, Becky saw that the outlaw was indeed armed with a pistol. A Colt, it looked like.

Sitting up, the blankets fell from her and Becky saw she’d been bandaged up. Must have been pretty bad, she thought. A hot, itchy feeling on her back told her she’d been shot through. That explained why the suit didn’t repressurize after she’d patched it. And why she passed out once they’d made it to the office building. Had they stayed in the street any longer, she’d be dead. Becky mentally did what every Marshal before her had done and moved getting shot through to the top of the list.

The bandaging went several times around her chest and torso, so she could use her right arm freely. Remembering the poor shape it had been in, she flexed it a few times and worked her fingers. All the sensation was back, but the arm was still weak. She’d have to trust to her rifle. Maybe rig her Vaquero for a left handed crossdraw.

She spotted her uniform, cleaned and repaired lying on a chair next to the door. Flipping the covers all the way off, Becky got out of bed and dressed. Her badge was on the desk, so she ized it on over her heart. Finally, she reached for her gunbelt and swung it around her hips just as there came a knock on the door. She quickly checked the Vaquero. Fully loaded with nine rounds of .45 caliber, 750 grain, overpowered cartridges.

“Come in,” she said, speaking low to make it difficult for anyone on the other side of the door to figure where she was.

It was Dixie. She looked at the bed, then to her left, where Becky stood ready, the Vaquero in her left hand. Dixie nodded, very pleased.

“You’re a going concern again,” she said as she plopped down in the chair and sighed. “That takes a buncha pressure off me, Beck. I’m not too good at being holed up, and your guts and gun can help us get out.”

“How’re you, Dixie?”

“Me?” She laughed. “Just a nick in the arm. Lost some blood, but not too bad. I’ve had lots worse lots of times.”

“So what’s happened?”

“Well, after you passed out on me and I patched you up, I figured to get you someplace safe. Only before I could, Dusty showed up, knocking on the airlock. Seems we’d gotten the whole bunch of ‘em. All five that came here. The other five are up at Kisambo, layin’ for us. At least, they were. Now they’re outside, caging us in here at Dusty’s”

“What are they so fired up about that they’d want to take on you, Dixie?”

“It’s not me, Beck. It’s Stiff. The rumors were true. Both of them. Stiff had been working with the North Cap Gang. Only they had a parting of the ways. They wanted to put a bullet through his head for all his efforts. Stiff was of a different mind and lit out.”

“What’s Stiff got that’s so all fired important? The secret to eternal life?”

“In a way. Stiff’s figured out how to tap into the protected comm circuit we Marshals use. After he’d set up North Cap with the code breakers, they fixed to kill him, not pay him. They figured if he was alive and shared his info with others, we’d find out and rescramble our circuit.”

“How’d you find all this out?”

“Easy,” Dixie replied with a grin. “Stiff told me.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Nope. Stiff was almighty impressed that you took a bullet for him. Talked about nothing else the past two days. I think you’ve got a friend for life.”

“Oh, great,” Becky moaned. “Just wait ‘til I write Mom about this. ‘Hey, Mom, I’ve got a new friend. He’s an outlaw, thief, and maybe murderer. Can I bring him home for dinner?’”

Dixie laughed.

“It’s not the first time, Beck. Most times we put our mark on the bad guys. But every now and then we make a mark. You know, leave an impression. Don’t put Stiff down, Beck. He’s handy to have. And not a bad sort, as far as criminals go.” She stood up. “Enough jawing. Grab a bite from the kitchen and head upstairs. I think I know a way out of this mess.”

 

The storm hadn’t abated at all, Becky decided when she first looked out the window on the second floor. If anything, it had increased in power. Only rarely did the view go beyond fifty meters.

“Right... there!” Dusty pointed to a location on the right, nearly 100 meters from the house. He was a slight man, but wiry and had a tough streak to him that showed from the outside and went clean through. He’d always been an honest man, but never a pushover. More like a push back. “See them rocks? I left ‘em there on purpose when I built my home, back in ‘04.”

“Why?” Becky asked. “It’s perfect cover for anyone attacking the house.”

“Sure is. That’s why I’ve mined the sucker with enough explosive to put anyone hiding there into orbit.” He chuckled. “Done it a couple times, too.”

“Then everyone knows about it,” Becky replied.

“Yep. So I use it for my get away when I’m pinned here. Nobody goes close to the rocks, and there’s a spot onna roof where a body with strong legs can cover the whole ninety-six meters in one jump. Done that, too, a coupla times.”

“And if they’re watching the rocks, they’re not watching the house,” Dixie said, finishing up the strategic advantage of a known weakness. “I figure if I could get out there without catching too much attention or titanium, well, we’d have them surrounded.”

“Why you, Dixie?” Becky asked. “My legs are in great shape. And I’ve got...”

“Nope. Gotta be me, Beck. Stiff’s your prisoner. He’s made that well known. And there’s no way Stiff could make the jump.” Becky nodded in agreement. “So the Marshal stays with her prisoner when possible. Besides,” Dixie said with a grin, “once I started openin’ up on them with my rifle, you’ll be behind them.”

Becky nodded again, understanding. “It’ll be the perfect set up.”

“For us, anyways,” Dixie replied. “But there’s one more thing we’re going to do.”

Ten minutes later, Becky went downstairs, convinced there was no better Ranger than Dixie Gomez.

 

Just about time. Becky stepped to the front door airlock and started the cycle. On her left was Dusty, suited up and ready to open fire through the living room ghost window. Beside him was his son, Rusty, similarly dressed and armed. Upstairs, Dusty Jr. and Liz waited, suited and armed. Dixie was on the roof.

“Hang on, Marshal Elam!”

Stiff stepped into the airlock with her, armed with a Colt Enforcer pistol Dusty had loaned him.

“You sure you want to be with me, Stiff?” Becky asked, keeping her eyes forward and rocking on her feet slightly. She flexed her right hand again. It was strong enough to hold her rifle but nothing more. Her shoulder throbbed and her head had joined in out of sympathy. “I reckon mosta the bullets will be coming my way.”

“Then I’ll take half of ‘em,” he said simply. He drew the gun and checked the twelve shot load. “I don’t like these little .36 jobs. I want a gun with put down.”

“Put the slug in the right place, Stiff, and even a .36 will drop a body. How many extra clips?”

“Three. With only five targets to shoot at, that makes about ten rounds each.” He cracked a grin. “I guess I don’t have to be worried about being too careful.” He glanced down and Becky’s right arm. “You going to be all right, Marshal?”

“Yep,” she answered, jerking the rifle upwards, working the lever to chamber a round. She sound confident, but was secretly surprised her arm didn’t fall off. “I’m using my rifle first, then going to the Ruger.” The airlock flashed a white indicator. Only a ghost door separated them from the Martian surface and the guns of a vengeance-crazed North Cap Gang.

“Okay.” The storm was causing a crackle even over such a short distance between Becky and Dixie. “I’m at the rocks, Beck. Soon as you start a covering fire from the house, I’ll start shooting.”

“Be careful, Dixie.”

A chuckle came over the static.

“Always am. Dixie out.”

Becky raised a hand to the door release. A glance at the airlock panel told her all the pressure had been bled out. A second glance, this time at Stiff, told her they were ready to make their move. Becky snapped the ghost door off and they stepped out onto the surface of Mars.

Upstairs, signaled by their father, Liz and Dusty, Jr. opened fire. Return fire was fast and hard, but limited to only one or two guns. Becky nodded. The other three had gone to get Dixie at the rocks. Unchallenged, she and Stiff moved up and to the left, in the direction of the gun fire.

They’d covered no more than twenty meters when there came a loud explosion from their forward right. Dusty had blown the rocks up. Dixie, who’d jumped to a point close to the outcropping, was in ideal location to take out the outlaws that had charged the rocks, since that’s where she said she was. Becky grinned and broke into a run. Listening in on other people’s conversations could prove unhealthy.

She caught them flat-footed. There were two, all right, and she’d taken them completely by surprise. Both had turned toward the explosion, knowing they’d been duped.

Becky came to a stop and brought her rifle up. Stiff flanked her right.

“Toss ‘em, boys!” she shouted over the common circuit.

Both turned sharply. Becky waited a half-heartbeat to decide what they were going to do. The one in the rear paused, but the one in front brought his gun up. Becky calmly squeezed the trigger.

The Winchester jumped in her hands. The outlaw also fired, but the shot went wild as Becky’s slug took him just below the neck. She jacked another round into the chamber and fired again. This one was lower and a shade to the right, taking the man in the heart. He sat down hard on the ground, then fell to his back, dead. She levered in a third shell and swung the rifle to the second outlaw.

Unneeded. Not only did Stiff have him covered, the man had already dropped his gun and put his hands behind his head.

“Get him back to the house, Stiff!” Becky yelled as she ran toward the unseen outcropping where gunfire was still popping above the howling wind. Even in the desperation of helping Dixie, Becky had to shake her head at the circumstances. Four days earlier, Stiff had been ready to draw on her. Now he was guarding her back.

She ran downwind toward the rocky outcropping. Because of that, she was able to see the final moments of the battle.

Dixie was lying near a large, sharp-edged boulder. She had propped herself up with one arm and while the other hovered over the Remington lying on the ground. Her suit was stained dark red on her left side. Beside her lay two figures, one thrashing weakly, the other still as death.

Facing her was the final member of the North Cap Gang, his hand poised only centimeters from the handle of his holstered pistol.

“Knife,” Dixie said calmly, “you reach for that gun and you’re a dead man.”

“Stuff it, Gomez!” Knife shouted back, his voice as sharp as his name. “You and that tinhorn rookie cost me my gang! I’m going to do you, first, then hunt down Elam. Six months from now I’ll have a new gang. One that knows your broadcast codes. Only you and that kid left to deal with. Only you, if Wildcat and Loose Bob did their job.”

“They didn’t,” Becky said. She was less than five meters from Knife Jackson, rifle at his back. A back that stiffened. He didn’t turn, though, Becky noted. The outlaw knew that even when she was disarmed and wounded, Dixie was the more dangerous.

“Not very law-like,” Knife said, “shooting someone in the back.”

“Not a problem,” Becky replied. “Turn around.”

Surprisingly, he did. He laughed a nasty laugh.

“You just bit off more than you can chew, Elam,” he sneered. “Gomez is bleeding to death, an’ I heard one of my boys shot you through two days back.” His eyes flickered at the rifle in her hands. “You put that rifle down and walk away, Elam, and I’ll let you and Gomez live.”

“I reckon not.”

He swore.

“You brat! If you shoot me with that, the slug’ll go through me and into Gomez! You wanna kill me and her?”

“You’re right,” Becky admitted. She held the rifle out with both hands, barrel up, on her right side. “I can’t take that risk. You win, Knife.” She dropped the rifle and Knife went for his gun.

He was lightening fast. Becky could never have matched his speed. But in turning slightly to drop the Winchester on her right, Becky’s left hand was in position over the butt of her Ruger Vaquero.

Becky drew and turned to her left, pivoting on her right foot. The Vaquero slid into her hand just as a bullet whapped into the ground where she’d been a moment before. A second slug snapped by her face, a near miss, but she ignored it. Two lives, her’s and Dixie’s, now required she remain calm.

The first two shots had missed her, but the third one hit, burning her along the lower back. Knife had fired three times and Becky was only now clearing the Vaquero. She fired from the hip, and she fired only once. Dixie had taught her many things, including fast and furious could never compete with careful and cold.

The Vaquero bucked in her hand and the slug took Knife straight in the chest. His gun hand dropped down, but he struggled to bring it up, so Becky fired again, putting a second slug less than a centimeter from the first one.

This time Knife dropped his gun. He stood there, swaying on his feet.

“Taken... Taken out by a rookie,” he said in wonder.

“Wrong, Knife,” Becky replied, sliding her Ruger into its holster. “You got taken out by a Red Marshal.”

He fell hard on his face, but made no sound. The dead rarely complained.

Dixie walked up, limping. Without a word, she ran some patch tape over Becky’s suit. The lights calmed down and Becky nodded her thanks.

“How’re the other two?” she asked, indicating the two prone figures near the rocks.

“One’ll live. The other one didn’t. You?”

Becky jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “One down and the other with Stiff. He’s takin’ him back to the house.” She paused, then added, “That’s handy, having an outlaw for a sidekick.”

Dixie laughed and put an arm around Becky, half from friendship, half for support.

“It’s even better having a Red Marshal for a partner,” Dixie said. They started walking back to the house.

“Especially one like you, Beck.”