Before dawn was more than a vague promise along the eastern horizon, Reno and Eve were on the trail. All morning he divided his attention between the landscape and the journals. He hadn’t spoken two words to Eve since he had told her about his own version of the Golden Rule.
By noon, Eve was becoming tired of her one-sided conversations with the lineback dun. The two Shaggies weren’t any better. In fact, they were worse. They wouldn’t so much as flick an ear in her direction when she spoke to them.
«Part mule, just like he is,» Eve said clearly.
If Reno heard — and she was sure he had — he didn’t even bother to look in her direction. He just kept opening first one journal, then the other, bracing the books on his thigh while he tried to find something.
«Can I help?» Eve asked finally.
Reno shook his head without looking up.
Another mile went by with no change except that Reno stopped long enough to get out his spyglass and take a good look at the land ahead and behind. Then he collapsed the glass and urged Darlin’ forward.
In the days past, the silence of the trail hadn’t bothered Eve at all. In fact, she had found it peaceful. It gave her as much time as she wanted to look at the colorful, ever-changing rock formations and imagine how they had come to be as they were.
This morning was different. Reno’s silence goaded Eve in a way she didn’t understand.
«Are we lost?» Eve asked finally.
Reno didn’t answer.
«Now who’s sulking?» she muttered.
«Dry up, saloon girl. I’m just looking for a way around that.»
Eve looked beyond Reno’s finger and saw nothing but another dry watercourse winding down to another notch in the land, one more step in what she privately called God’s Staircase down to the bottom of the stone maze of canyons.
«We’ve gone through worse,» she said.
«The back of my neck itches.»
«Maybe I didn’t get off all the soap.»
Reno turned and looked at her with glittering green eyes. «Are you offering to try again?»
«Your throat in one hand and a razor in the other?» Eve asked sweetly. «Don’t tempt me, gunfighter.»
Reno looked at the girl who last night had been a summer storm, wild and sultry. Just the memory of it made his blood run savagely, swelling and hardening him in a torrid rush. But in the end she had refused him the very thing she had held out as a lure.
At least he had the bitter satisfaction of knowing that he wasn’t the only one who had slept restlessly last night, raked by claws of unfulfilled desire.
«Wait here,» he said. «I’m going to see if there are any tracks heading into the notch. If anything happens to me, turn and run for Cal’s ranch.»
It wasn’t the first time Reno had left Eve in order to reconnoiter, but it was the first time he had so flatly warned of danger. She watched anxiously while he quartered back and forth on either side of the most obvious routes into the notch.
Finally Reno signaled Eve forward. While she brought the packhorses up, he drew his six-gun, spun the cylinder once to check the load, and holstered the gun again. Then he reached back and pulled another six-gun and two spare cylinders from a saddlebag. With them came an odd harness, rather like a Mexican bandolier rigged to hold more than just ammunition.
The second pistol was already fully loaded. So were the two extra cylinders. The spare gun went into a holster on the bandolier. The extra, loaded cylinders went into special loops.
Eve watched the preparations with unhappy eyes as he checked the ammunition loops one by one.
«Is there something you aren’t telling me?» she asked.
Reno’s mouth turned up at one corner. «Hardly. I’ve always told you exactly what was on my mind.»
«You didn’t use a second pistol before,» Eve said.
«Cal’s journal mentions a passage up ahead so narrow you can’t swing a cat.»
«Can a horse get through?»
«Yes, but my repeating rifle is no good in a box like that,» Reno said calmly.
Nervously Eve took off her hat, tucked up wisps of hair, and looked everywhere but at Reno’s ice green eyes. She didn’t want him to know how fearful she felt.
And how alone.
«What about my shotgun?» she asked after a moment.
«Use it, but make damn sure you hit what you aim at. A ricochet cuts you up worse than a regular bullet.»
«Are your reins still tied together?» Reno asked.
She nodded again.
«Take Shaggy One off the lead and put the packhorses between us,» he said.
Eve’s head turned swiftly toward him. «Why?»
Reno saw the shadows in her golden eyes and felt like pulling her into his arms to reassure her.
But reassurance would be a lie. The way ahead was dangerous, and Reno’s instincts were riding him like iron spurs. Reassuring Eve wouldn’t be a kindness. She would need all her wariness. So would he.
«There are a lot of tracks,» Reno said. «The ground is too sandy to be sure if it’s mustangs or shod horses. If Slater’s up ahead, he’ll be shooting at me. If you’re too close, you could catch a bullet. So put the packhorses between us.»
«I’ll take my chances on a bullet.»
Reno’s left eyebrow rose in a black arc. «Suit yourself. Either way, take off the lead rope.»
«If I were going to suit myself,» Eve said distinctly as she began working over the lead rope, «I’d stay away from the notch.»
«It’s the only route to the Spanish mine marked in your journal, unless you want to go all the way back through the Rockies and take the route up from Santa Fe.»
«Perdition,» Eve muttered. «It would be spring before we got back here.»
«This route also leads to the only sure water.»
Eve sighed. She had never realized how much water it took to keep horses going, and how precious water could be.
«Maybe Slater gave up,» she said.
She leaned over in the saddle and tied the lead rope around Shaggy One’s neck.
«He might have given up on punishing a cheating saloon girl, but I don’t think he’ll give up on gold. Or,» Reno added sarcastically, «on the man who helped to shoot his twin brother’s gang to pieces.»
Reno nodded. «Me, Cal, and Wolfe.»
«Caleb Black? My God — what if Slater goes after Caleb instead of us?»
«Old Jericho is smarter than that. Cal has some hard men riding for him, especially those three freed slaves. Two of them were Buffalo Soldiers. The third one is called Pig Iron. He’s half Seminole and pure poison mean.»
«Except with Willow,» Reno added, seeing the uneasy expression on Eve’s face. «She tended them after they ate bad meat. They think the sun rises and sets in her. So do their women — including the Comanchero squaw who can’t make up her mind between Crooked Bear and Pig Iron.»
«Are they armed?»
«Hell, yes. What use is an unarmed man?»
«All the same,» Eve said, «Slater has a lot of men.»
«That’s not the same as havinggoodmen. Don’t you worry about Cal. He’s a one-man army all by himself. Wish to God I had him at my back right now.»
With that, Reno reined the blue roan toward the notch. The lineback dun followed immediately. The two Shaggies fell into place despite the absence of lead ropes.
Reno didn’t have to tell Eve to be silent. She rode the way he rode, alert to every shadow, wary of every bend in the river bottom that could conceal riders waiting in ambush. The shotgun across her lap gleamed in the rare patches of sunlight.
The heat of day slowly gave way to a hushed kind of twilight as rock walls rose on either side of the track. Layers of stone piled one upon another until the sky retreated to scarcely more than a wide, cloud-ridden banner high overhead. There was no sound but that of creaking leather, the dry swish of a horse’s tail, and hoofbeats softened by sand.
Small finger canyons joined the larger one from time to time. All of them were dry.
Finally the strip of cloudy sky overhead began to widen, telling Eve they were almost out of the dry riverbed that separated the towering walls of stone, just ahead, the wash bent to the right around one more nose of rock. Behind her and to the left, another side canyon opened.
Suddenly the blue roan tried to leap out of her tracks. Reno yelled at Eve to take cover.
Then men were shouting and shots were hammering as lead whined and screamed between stone walls. Some of the shots were Reno’s. In a wild drumroll of sound, he fired at the men who had leaped from hiding behind the wall of stone that lay just ahead of his horse.
Reno’s speed in drawing and shooting both guns took the ambushers by surprise. His deadly accuracy shocked the men who survived the brutal thunder of the first twelve shots. The outlaws who were still able to move dove for cover in a tangle of flailing limbs and vicious curses.
With movements so fast they blurred, Reno swapped empty cylinders for loaded ones and began shooting again before the men could recover.
«Behind us!» Eve screamed.
The last part of her cry was lost in the deafening thunder of the shotgun as she triggered both barrels. The two outlaws who had been concealed in the underbrush of the side canyon shouted in pain as buckshot whipped and whined around them.
Reno spun the blue roan and fired so quickly the sound of his bullets was buried beneath the shotgun’s noise. The men dropped where they were and didn’t move again.
«Eve! Are you hurt?»
«No. Are —»
The rest of Eve’s question was cut off by the ragged thunder of horses’ hooves echoing down between stone walls. The sound came from behind and from ahead, rising like a tide.
«We’re trapped!» Eve shouted.
As Reno spoke, he spurred the blue roan toward the narrow side canyon, sweeping Eve and the packhorses before him. They hurtled the bodies of the two outlaws and raced into the small opening. Within twenty feet, the tributary canyon took a steep bend around a fin of red rock.
Eve clung to the lineback dun with knees and heels, trying to reload the shotgun while the mustang took the obstacle course of the dry stream bed at a dead run. She managed to get one shell into the shotgun.
She was trying for a second shell when it spurted from her fingers as the dun skidded on a patch of bedrock rising up through the thin layer of sand. The mustang went down to her knees, then righted herself with a force that sent sparks flying as steel shoes clashed against rock that was harder than sandstone.
After that, Eve forgot about loading the shotgun and concentrated on keeping herself and her mustang right side up.
A mile later the stream bed began to rise more steeply beneath the horses’ pounding hooves. No more cottonwoods whipped by at the edge of Eve’s vision. There were few bushes to hurtle or avoid, and even those were stunted.
The layered rock walls pinched inward. Sand thinned into patches and pools with stretches of water-polished rock in between. The trail became dangerously slick and uneven. Even the tough, agile mustangs nearly came to grief more than once.
«Pull up!» Reno called finally.
Gratefully Eve reined in the hard-running mare. She turned to ask a question, but all she saw was Reno spurring the blue roan back the way they had come.
The two Shaggies crowded around Eve’s mustang as though needing reassurance. She fumbled a second shell into the shotgun before she bent over in the saddle to check the rigging on the packhorses. Nothing had shifted. Nothing had come undone. Even the awkward little barrels on the outside of the tarpaulins were still in place. So were the picks and shovels. Reno was as thorough in caring for the animals as he was in caring for his weapons.
Gunfire echoed up the canyon in a staccato cataract that seemed to go on forever. The Shaggies snorted and crowded closer, but showed no inclination to bolt. Eve’s heart was hammering so hard she was afraid it would burst from her chest.
More gunshots echoed. The silence that followed the echoes was worse than any thunder.
After Eve counted to ten, she could bear no more. She kicked the dun hard and went racing back to see what had happened to Reno. The mustang laid back her ears, flattened out, and began to gallop despite the uncertain footing. Head low and tail high, the dun tore over the dangerous ground.
The sound of hoofbeats alerted Reno. He reined his horse around just in time to see Eve flying toward him on the back of a hard-running mustang. The dun leaped a spur of rock, sprayed sand through a soft spot, and nearly went down on a stretch of slickrock.
Reno thought that would slow Eve, but as soon as the dun had all four hooves under her again, Eve set the mustang at a dead run once more.
She didn’t hear him.
Reno spurred his roan out into the open. Eve’s horse reared as she was hauled back on her hocks in a skidding, sliding stop.
«Of all the damn fool —» yelled Reno.
«Are you all right?» Eve said urgently.
«— things to do. Of course I’m —»
«I heard gunfire and then silence, and I called your name and you didn’t answer.»
Anxious golden eyes searched Reno for injury.
«I’m fine,» he said in a clipped voice. «Except that you damn near gave me heart failure running your horse over that ground.»
«I thought you were hurt.»
«What were you going to do — trample Slater’s bunch right into the sand?»
Reno kept on talking. «If you ever pull a damn fool stunt like that again, I’ll turn you over my knee.»
«But nothing,» he interrupted savagely. «You could have galloped right into a cross fire and been cut to ribbons.»
«I thought that was what had happened to you.»
Reno let out a breath and damped down the temper that threatened to flash out of control. He had been in a lot of tight places and been shot more than once, but he had never been as plain scared as when he had seen Eve run her mustang flat out over the sand and slickrock.
«It was my ambush this time,» Reno said finally. «Not theirs.»
A ragged sigh was Eve’s only answer.
«It will be a while before they come asking for more,» he continued. «We better hope it isn’t too long, though.»
«Water,» he said succinctly. «This canyon is stone dry.»
EVE looked up anxiously as Reno rode back in from his short exploration of the tributary canyon. The grim line of his mouth told her that he hadn’t discovered anything useful.
«Dry,» he said.
«And blind,» he added.
«It’s a dead end.»
«How far ahead?»
«Maybe two miles,» Reno said.
Eve looked down the narrow wash where Slater’s men waited for their quarry.
«They need water, too,» she pointed out.
«One man can lead a lot of horses to water. The rest will stay put, waiting for us to get thirsty enough to do something stupid.»
«Then we’ll just have to get past them.»
Reno’s smile wasn’t comforting.
«All in all,» he said, «I’d rather take my chances on climbing the head wall of the canyon than get caught in that kind of a cross fire.»
Eve looked beyond Reno to the stone wall that piled layer on layer to the sky.
«What about the horses?» she asked.
«We’ll have to turn them loose.»
What Reno didn’t say was that a man on foot in a dry land didn’t have much chance of surviving. But as small as that chance was, it was better than the odds of successfully running a gauntlet of Slater’s guns through the narrow canyon.
«Let’s go,» Reno said. «We only get thirstier from now on.»
Eve didn’t argue. Already her mouth was dry. She could imagine the thirst of the mustangs, who had run an obstacle course through the hot canyon.
«You first,» Reno said. «Then the packhorses.»
The dry stream bed narrowed until it was little more than a sculpted, water-smoothed opening snaking through solid stone. Overhead, the clouds flowed together and thickened into a turbulent lid over the dry land. Thunder rolled distantly, following invisible lightning.
Reno saw Eve glance longingly at the clouds.
«You better pray it doesn’t rain,» he said.
He gestured to the canyon wall that was only inches beyond his outstretched hand.
«See that line?» he asked.
«Yes. I’ve been wondering what it was.»
Eve’s eyes widened. She looked at the line that ran the length of the canyon well above their heads. Then she looked back at Reno.
«Where does it all come from?» she asked.
«Up on the plateau. During big storms, rain comes down faster than it can sink in. And in some places, it can’t sink in at all. So it just runs off all at once. In these slot canyons, it gets real deep real fast.»
«What a country,» Eve said. «Eat sand or drown.»
The corner of Reno’s mouth lifted slightly. «I’ve come close to both, one time or another.»
Yet he had never had his tail in quite as tight a crack as he did right now — a dead end ahead, outlaws behind, and thirst in between.
Silently Reno examined the walls of the side canyon where he and Eve were trapped. Something about the rock layers nagged at his mind.
«Pull up,» he said to Eve.
She reined in and looked over her shoulder. Reno was sitting with both hands on the saddle horn, studying the narrow little canyon as though he had never seen anything quite so interesting in his life.
After a minute Reno urged the blue roan forward, squeezed past the two Shaggies and Eve’s dun to the tiny slot canyon he had discovered on his first reconnoiter up the canyon. He had dismissed the slot as a runoff channel. But now he thought he might have been too hasty.
«Is your shotgun loaded?» Reno asked.
«Ever used a six-gun?» he asked.
«Sometimes. I can’t hit the side of the barn with one at much over thirty feet.»
Reno turned and looked at Eve. The smile he gave her made her realize all over again what a good-looking man he was.
«Don’t worry, gata. No barns will be sneaking up on us.»
Reno pulled out his second six-gun and removed one bullet from the revolving cylinder before he put the weapon back in the bandolier.
«Here,» he said, handing the bandolier to Eve. «The firing pin is on an empty chamber, so you’ll have to pull the trigger twice to fire.»
The bandolier fit Eve the way a greatcoat fits a child. When Reno reached forward to adjust the buckle, the back of his fingers accidentally brushed over one of her breasts. Her breath came in hard and fast. The sudden motion had the effect of brushing her breast against his hand once more. The twin touches hardened her nipple in a rush.
Reno looked up from her breast to the vivid golden eyes of the saloon girl who haunted even his dreams.
«You’re so damned alive,» Reno said almost roughly. «And you came so damned dose to dying. …»
He adjusted the bandolier as much as possible on her. Telling himself he wouldn’t, reaching for her even as he told himself not to, Reno slid his hand around the nape of Eve’s neck. He pulled her toward him as he leaned down.
«I’m going to check out that slot canyon,» he said against her lips. «Keep an eye on the back trail while I’m gone.»
«Don’t worry. I plan to live long enough to enjoy every last bit of what I won in the Gold Dust Saloon — and that includes you.»
The kiss Reno gave Eve was like lightning, hot and untamed, striking to her core, lasting only an instant.
Then Reno was gone, leaving her with his taste on her lips, his hunger racing in her blood, and his words shivering through her, warning and promise in one.
I plan to live long enough to enjoy every last bit of what I won in the Gold Dust Saloon — and that includes you.