A few hours later, Eve, Reno, and the horses were still scrambling up layer after layer of stone, following a precarious way out of the blind canyon. Many times the passage threatened to vanish against one cliff or another, stranding them, but it never did.
«Don’t look down.»
Reno’s order was unnecessary. Eve wouldn’t have looked down if someone had held a gun at her head. In fact, she might have considered being shot a blessing, if it meant that she would never again have to lead a mustang along an eyebrow trail high above the canyon floor.
«Are you sure you’re all right?» Reno asked.
Eve didn’t answer. She didn’t have any energy to spare for words. She was too busy staring at her feet, willing herself not to stumble.
The coarse grain of the sandstone was engraved on Eve’s mind. She was certain the texture of it would inhabit her nightmares for years to come. Pebbles the size and shape of marbles were scattered all over the surface of the ledge, ready to send a careless foot sliding and skidding.
The mustangs had little difficulty with the trail. They had four feet. If one slipped, there were three to take its place. Eve had nothing but her hands, which were already sore from catching herself the last time she had tripped.
«See the white rock ahead?» Reno asked encouragingly. «That means we’re getting closer to the lip of the plateau.»
«Hallelujah,» Eve whispered.
The lineback dun snorted and jerked her head down to rub off a pesky fly.
Eve barely stifled a scream as the reins yanked at her hand, threatening her precarious balance.
«It’s all right,» Reno said in a low, calm voice.
The hell it is.
But Eve didn’t have the breath to waste on contradicting Reno aloud.
«That was just a fly bothering your horse,» he said. «Put the reins over her neck. She’ll follow you without being led.»
A jerky nod was the only answer Reno got.
When Eve lifted the tied reins over the mustang’s neck, her arms were trembling so much that she nearly dropped the reins.
Reno’s hands balled into fists. Ruthlessly he forced himself to relax one finger at a time. If he could have walked the trail for Eve, he would have. But he could not.
Bleakly Reno resumed the climb. Eons of rain and wind had rounded the rock and worn nearly perpendicular channels through it. The higher he climbed, the deeper and steeper became the many channels cutting across the pale, smooth surface of the stone. Sometimes he had to double-back and find a way around a particularly wide channel.
Reno scrambled up and onto another slickrock terrace. The blue roan was hard on his heels, as surefooted as a cat. The other mustangs were equally agile. He walked forward quickly, anxious to meet and overcome the next obstacle.
He didn’t notice that Eve had sent her mustang on ahead at the first wide spot in the trail. He was intent on the next scramble and then the next. Until he climbed the last pale slickrock terrace and saw a mesa top opening before him, he wouldn’t know whether they had struggled upward all this way only to reach a dead end at the foot of a cliff. He was impatient to find out, for he didn’t want to retrace his steps in failing light.
Eve kept her eyes on the small marks the horses’ hooves had left on the stone. Each time she came to one of the hundreds of runoff channels that criss-crossed the massive layer of white rock, she took her courage in both hands and stepped across, ignoring the black abyss beneath her feet.
She no longer looked to the right or to the left or even straight ahead. She definitely didn’t look behind. Each time she looked over the back trail, her skin tightened at the sight of layer after layer of rock dropping steeply into a blue haze. She couldn’t believe she had climbed that far. She couldn’t believe she had to keep on climbing.
Breathing hard, Eve stopped to rest, hoping some strength would flow back into her weary legs. She would have given a great deal for a drink of water, but she had left the heavy, awkward canteen tied to the dun’s saddle.
Sighing, she rubbed her hands over her aching thighs and scrambled up onto the next terrace to see what awaited her. Just a few feet away, the rock sloped to another runoff channel. This one was shaped rather like a funnel with the far side cut away. There was a steep descent to a small ledge. From there the channel sliced endlessly down through the white rock, dividing it into separate masses.
Reno and the horses were on the other side.
«It’s no more than a yard wide,» Eve told herself through stiff lips. «I can step across it.»
It’s more than a yard. I’ll have to jump.
«I jumped farther than that across the creek just for fun.»
It didn’t matter if I fell in the creek. If I fall now…
The weakness in Eve’s knees frightened her. She was thirsty, exhausted, and nervous from spending hours expecting to slip and fall with every step. And now this black canyon to cross.
She couldn’t do it. She simply could not.
Stop it, Eve told herself harshly. I’ve done harder things the last few hours. The crack is only a few feet wide. All I have to do is give a little jump and I’ll be on the other side.
Repeating it made her feel better, especially as her eyes were closed. It would have helped if she could have seen Reno or the horses on the other side, but she couldn’t. From where she was, she could see nothing but the steep slope at her back and the chasm ahead.
Eve ran her dry tongue over her equally dry lips. She was tempted to walk back a hundred yards and drink out of one of the many, odd hollows in the solid stone where water lingered from a recent rain. The hollows held anywhere from a cup to several gallons of water.
In the end, Eve decided not to go back, because she didn’t want to walk one more yard than was absolutely necessary. Besides, the hollows were alive with tiny swimming creatures.
Eve took a deep breath and approached the black opening that lay between her and the horses. From the marks she could see on the rock, the mustangs had sat on their hocks, skidded down to the ledge, and then stepped or jumped to the other side of the channel. There was no slope to scramble up on the far side. She could fall flat when she landed and it wouldn’t matter.
Easy as jumping down a stair. Nothing to it.
Taking another breath, Eve walked forward.
A pebble turned under the ball of her foot, throwing her off balance. She turned as she fell, her arms wide, her fingers reaching for anything that would stop her fall. There was nothing to grab but air.
The force of the fall knocked the breath out of Eve and sent her rolling rapidly toward the black gap. There was no bottom, no top, nothing to cling to. She was flailing down a slide made of stone, hurtling toward an endless night.
«Reno!» Eve screamed.
First her feet, then her knees, bumped over the ledge, then her thighs. Somehow her hands found enough purchase on the rock to halt her tumbling. She lay with her cheek against the rock, her arms shaking, and her legs dangling over eternity. When she tried to pull herself up out of the abyss, she nearly lost what grip she had upon the stone.
An instant later Eve felt herself being torn free of the rock. She fought wildly before she realized that it was Reno lifting and turning her, pulling her back from the abyss. He braced his feet apart and held her against his body.
«Easy, gata. I’ve got you.»
Trembling in every limb, Eve sagged against Reno.
«Are you hurt?» he asked urgently.
Eve shook her head.
He looked at the pallor of her face, the trembling of her lips, and the shiny trails tears had left on her skin.
«Can you stand?» he asked.
She took a shuddering breath and put more of her weight on her own feet. He released her just enough to find out if she could stand. She could, but she was shaking.
«We can’t go back,» Reno said. «We have to go on.»
Though he tried to speak in gentle tones, the race of adrenaline in his system made his voice harsh.
Nodding to show she understood, Eve tried to take a step. Immediately she was betrayed by the shaking of her legs.
Reno caught her and brushed his mouth lightly over hers. The kiss was unlike any he had given her, for it asked nothing of her in return. He eased her down onto the stone and sat beside her, cradling her while she shook with a mixture of fatigue and exhaustion, fear and relief.
Reno took off the canteen he wore slung down his back. The rasp of a canteen stopper was followed by the silvery music of water trickling out as he dampened his bandanna. When the cool cloth touched Eve’s face, she flinched.
«Easy, little one,» Reno murmured. «It’s just water, like your tears.»
«I’m n-not crying. I’m…resting.»
He poured a bit more water on his dark bandanna and wiped Eve’s pale, tear-stained face. She let out a ragged breath and sat quietly while he removed the evidence of her tears.
«Drink,» he said.
Eve felt the metal rim of the canteen nudge her lips. She sipped lightly, then with more interest as the water slid over the parched tissues of her mouth.
A low sound of pleasure came from her as she swallowed. She hadn’t known anything could taste so clean, so perfect. Holding the canteen with both hands, she drank greedily, ignoring the tiny trickle that escaped at one corner of her mouth.
Reno blotted the extra water with his bandanna at first, then with his tongue. The warm caress so startled Eve that she dropped the canteen. He laughed and caught the canteen, stoppered it, and slung it across his back once more.
«Ready to go?» he asked softly.
«Do I have any choice?»
«Yes. You can take that gap with your eyes open and me right beside you, or you can take it unconscious over my shoulder.»
Eve’s eyes widened.
«I wouldn’t hurt you,» he added.
Gently his hands circled her throat. His thumbs found the points where blood flowed into her brain.
«A bit of pressure and you’ll faint,» Reno said calmly. «You’ll wake up within seconds, but you’ll be on the other side by then.»
«You can’t carry me over that,» she protested.
«You’re like a cat. Sleek and lithe. But for all their speed and grace, cats don’t weigh much.»
Reno stood, pulling Eve to her feet and then off them in a smooth, easy motion. He shifted his grip, holding her balanced against his hip with one arm. It all happened so quickly, she didn’t have time to draw a breath.
Eve’s eyes widened in shock as she realized how much of Reno’s strength he had kept in check when he touched her. She had always known he was stronger than she was. She just hadn’t known how much stronger. An odd, strangled sound escaped her lips.
«I didn’t mean to frighten you,» he said.
«It’s not that,» she said faintly.
He waited, watching her.
«It’s just…» Eve made a sound that was half laugh, half sob. «I’m used to being the strong one.»
There was a long silence while Reno held Eve and thought about what she had said. Slowly he nodded. It explained a lot, including why she hadn’t told him how close to the end of her rope she was. It simply hadn’t occurred to her. She was used to being with people who had less strength and stamina than she did, not more.
«And I’m used to traveling alone,» Reno said. «I’ve pushed you too hard. I’m sorry.»
Carefully he set Eve on her feet again.
«Can you walk?» he asked.
Eve sighed and nodded.
One of Reno’s arms slid around her waist.
«Tired littlegata. Put you arm around me and lean. It’s not far.»
«I can —»
Abruptly Reno’s hand came down over Eve’s mouth, shutting off her words.
«Quiet,» he whispered against her ear. «Someone is coming.»
Eve froze and strained to hear beyond the wild beating of her heart.
Reno was right. The lazy breeze was carrying the sound of someone cursing savagely.
«Damnation,» hissed Reno. «Get down!»
Eve had no choice about it. He had her pressed on her stomach against the rock before she could blink.
«Keep your head down,» he said in a very soft voice. «They won’t be able to see you until they’re at the top of the slope above us.»
Reno took off his hat, handed Eve the canteen, and drew his gun. She watched as he began crawling on his stomach up the ten-foot slickrock incline.
On the other side were three Comancheros leading wiry mustangs. They were headed straight for Reno. Crooked Bear was in the lead. He spotted Reno immediately. When the Comanchero shouted, bullets started whining and ricocheting off the pale stone, sending sharp chips of rock flying.
Instantly Reno returned the fire, picking targets with care, for the range was better suited to a rifle than to a six-gun. There wasn’t much cover, but the Comancheros made good use of every irregularity. They flattened themselves in the shallow basins, dove behind hardy pinon, or threw their bodies into one of the many cracks on the seamed surface of the slickrock.
Unfortunately, all except Crooked Bear were beyond the range of Reno’s six-gun. The Comanchero took a bullet in his arm, but the wound wasn’t bad. The most it would do was slow the big Indian down a bit.
Reno slithered back down the slope to Eve and pulled her to her feet.
«They’ll stay put, but not for long,» he said. «Get ready to run.»
Eve wanted to object that she couldn’t run, but a look at Reno’s jade green eyes made her change her mind. His fingers wrapped around her right arm just below the shoulder.
«Three steps, then jump,» he said.
There was no time for Eve to waver or worry. Reno was thrusting her forward. She took three running steps and jumped like a doe. He was right beside her, flying over the black channel, landing, holding her upright when her foot slipped. Seconds later they were running flat out over the slick-rock.
Eve had never moved so fast before in her life. Reno’s powerful hand was clamped around her arm, lifting her, hurtling her forward, then lifting her again the instant her feet touched the ground.
They were almost to the horses when rifle bullets began crashing and whining around them, screaming off the slickrock. Reno made no attempt to take cover. He simply tightened his grip on Eve and ran faster toward the ravine ahead. He knew their best chance of survival lay in reaching the ravine where the horses were hidden before Slater’s Comancheros reloaded their single-shot rifles.
Breath tore in and out of Eve’s lungs as she sprinted beside Reno, captive to the iron grip on her arm. Just when she thought she could run no farther, a bullet ricocheted nearby. She ran faster than before, trusting Reno to catch her if she stumbled.
Suddenly the rock sloped away beneath their feet. Together Eve and Reno skidded down the steep incline. The mustangs snorted and shied with alarm as he threw her into her saddle, vaulted onto his own horse, and headed up the ravine at a gallop.
All too soon the way began to narrow and climb steeply toward yet another slickrock terrace. Reno kept the horses pointed uphill, not stopping even when the way became so narrow that stirrups scraped against stone. Scrambling and clawing like cats, the agile mustangs climbed through stony debris.
Abruptly they were in the clear. A wide mesa opened up before them. Reno didn’t stop to congratulate himself on their good luck at not finding themselves smack up against a slickrock cliff. He spun the blue roan around and raced back to the Shaggy that carried the small barrels. He jerked one barrel free, grabbed a leather sack from the back saddle, and turned to Eve.
«I’m going to try to close the trail,» he said curtly. «Take the horses about a hundred yards up the draw and hobble them.»
She grabbed Darlin’s reins, kicked the dun, and took off up the shallow, grassy ravine that drained the plateau. The two Shaggies followed. A scant one hundred yards later, Eve threw herself off the dun, hobbled her, and ran back to Darlin’. The mustang snorted in alarm but was too tired to bite when strange hands slapped hobbles around her forelegs. The two Shaggies were already cropping grass eagerly. They were hobbled before they knew what had happened.
Eve yanked the repeating rifle out of Reno’s saddle scabbard, grabbed her own shotgun, and ran back to where Reno worked at the lip of the plateau.
«Can you see them yet?» she asked breathlessly.
He spun toward her in surprise. «What are you doing here? I told you to —»
«They’re hobbled,» Eve interrupted.
«They better be, or we’ll be afoot.»
Reno bent over the ground once more. Working quickly, he poured black powder into a second tin can.
«What are you doing?» she asked.
«Getting set to bring a chunk of slickrock down around those boys’ ears.»
The sound of voices came up the ravine.
«Hell’s fire, but they’re fast,» muttered Reno. «Can you shoot a rifle?»
«Better than a six-gun.»
«Good. Keep those Comancheros pinned down while I finish. Leave the shotgun with me.»
As Eve started for the lip of the mesa with Reno’s rifle, he grabbed her.
«Keep down,» Reno ordered in a low, hard voice. «Go on your stomach for the last few yards. There are three of them, and they don’t have a repeating rifle, but it takes only one bullet to put you six feet under.»
Eve crawled to the lip of the mesa and stared down the narrow ravine. No men were in sight yet, but their voices carried clearly, as did the sound of hooves on stone.
«The next time goddamn Jericho wants me to go chasing goddamn Reno Moran, I’m gonna make goddamn damn sure I — goddamn!»
The sound of Eve’s shot echoed and reechoed through the narrow ravine. She levered in another shot and fired again. The bullet whined and caromed from stone to stone. She fired one more shot for good measure.
No one fired in return. They were all too busy diving for cover.
Eve looked over her shoulder. Reno was hammering the edges of the second can shut with the butt of his six-gun. A two-foot fuse dangled from each can.
«Keep them pinned down,» he said.
With a silent prayer, Eve sent bullets flying down the ravine while Reno crawled over to a ledge of smooth rock that jutted out to one side of the ravine. Carefully he shoved both cans into a deep crack.
«Keep firing,» Reno said.
While rifle shots echoed, he struck a match and lit both fuses.
Eve kept firing until she was snatched to her feet and set to running flat out away from the ravine. Scant seconds later, a sound like double thunder came from behind them. Reno took Eve down to the ground and covered her with his body while rock exploded and fell in a hard, sharp-edged rain.
Behind them a piece of the plateau sheared away. Skidding, bouncing, grinding, groaning, the stone avalanche went down the narrow ravine until it hit a barrier and piled up in a boiling cloud of dust and grit.
«You all right?» Reno asked.
Reno rolled aside and came to his feet in an easy motion, bringing Eve with him. He approached the edge of the plateau cautiously and looked over.
The ravine was choked with stones of all sizes.
«Be damned,» he said. «That crack must have gone farther down than I thought.»
Numbly Eve stared, astonished at the change two cans of black powder had made.
Above the sound of random debris settling along the slope came the rhythmic beat of hooves. The sounds retreated farther and farther down the ravine as the mustangs fled the unexpected thunder.
«Even if those boys survived, they’ve got a long walk ahead of them,» Reno said with distinct satisfaction.
«Then we’re — safe?»
Reno gave Eve a rather dark smile.
«For a time, yes,» he said. «But if there’s another way onto this plateau, Slater’s Comancheros will know about it.»
«Maybe there isn’t,» Eve said quickly.
«You better hope there is.»
«Because their way up is our waydown,» Reno said succinctly.
Eve rubbed her dusty forehead against her equally dusty sleeve and tried not to show her dismay at the thought of being trapped on top of the plateau.
Reno saw anyway. He squeezed her arm reassuringly just before he turned away.
«Come on,» he said. «Let’s go see how well you hobbled the horses.»