The jumbled waste of rock, sand, and tough shrubs looked like it went on forever in all directions, but Reno knew it didn’t. It was simply another wide step down in the long descent from the Rockies to the place more than a hundred miles to the west, where the mysterious, powerful Rio Colorado coiled invisibly between stone banks.
If it weren’t for Slater hovering on the horizon like a vulture, I’d be happy to camp by fresh water and not move for a few weeks.
Reno smiled wryly at his own thoughts. For the first time in his life, he was in no real hurry to find Spanish treasure. He was having too much pleasure in other explorations, charting the undiscovered territory of a dual sensuality that was both savage and sublime, violent and tender, demanding and renewing. He didn’t want it to end until both of them had drunk the dark wine to the last heady drop.
Until we find the mine, you’ll be my woman whenever I want you, however I want you.
Eve had kept her end of the bargain with a generosity that was as unexpected and consuming as the sweet violence of their joined bodies. The thought of never again reaching for her in the darkness was unsettling to Reno. Whenever the thought came, he pushed it away.
Sufficient unto each day the troubles thereof.
The old advice echoed in the silence of Reno’s mind. He had no argument with it. He had enough troubles for this or any other day.
By now, word of the presence of a man and a woman riding along the edges of the stone maze would have gone out along the mysterious, efficient grapevine that existed throughout the West wherever strangers met at a water hole or crossroads, or shared a cup of coffee over a tiny campfire.
Hope Rafe hasn’t forgotten all the old signs we used to leave each other when we hunted as boys.
And I hope Wolfe hears I’m out here with a woman looking for gold. He knows the country. He’ll know I need a good man at my back if I find the mine.
Damn Slater and his hawk-eyed half-breed tracker. Anybody else would have given up a week ago.
By the end of the following day, Reno and Eve were camped at the base of a red sandstone formation that rose against the sky like a sail hewn from a single piece of stone. High up on the side of the cliff, rock had weathered away more quickly than in other parts of the formation. The result was a window set like a gem in the solid rock wall. A shaft of light from the setting sun speared through the opening, gliding everything it touched with deepest gold.
Yet even more astonishing than a window in stone was the muted murmur of fresh water nearby. They had climbed out of the stone maze and were riding once more through a landscape where mountains were close enough to make out individual peaks. The camp they made was between a series of sunny river bends.
Reno had been right about Eve’s reaction to water after having ridden through a rock desert. The first time she saw a trickle of water twisting through the center of an arid valley, she talked excitedly about riding next to a «river» again. Reno had teased her about it, but he hadn’t objected when she asked to camp at the point where the small stream spread out into a series of sunwarmed pools bordered by whispering cottonwood trees.
At sunset and dawn, the land looked like an illustration for a mythic tale from a book men had forgotten how to read. It made Eve wonder if she had stumbled into an enchanted land where time stood still.
«It looks like it’s been here forever,» Eve said.
Reno followed her glance to the golden window time had carved from stone.
«Nothing lasts forever,» he said. «Not even rock.»
Eve looked at Reno, then back to the sail of stone rising improbably against the endless sky.
«It looks like it does,» she said softly.
«Looks don’t count for much. That window gets a bit bigger each day as grain after grain of the sandstone is chiseled out by the wind,» Reno said.
Eve listened, and sensed what lay beneath the words, change coming whether it was wanted or not.
«Someday that little window could be a full-blown arch,» Reno said. «Then the arch will get worn thin over time until it collapses, leaving a notch behind in the rock wall. Then the notch will be cut deeper and wider by wind and rain, until finally nothing is left but red rubble and blue sky.»
Eve shivered again. «I can’t imagine this land worn down like that.»
«That’s where the sandstone came from in the first place,» Reno said, looking at the soaring red wall. «Mountains that were worn down a grain at a time and piled by the wind into ancient dunes or washed down to seas so old even God has forgotten them.»
The quality of Reno’s voice drew Eve’s eyes from the fantastic rock formations. Motionless, she watched him as he watched the land and spoke calmly of unimaginable eons passing into eternity.
«Then the sand became stone again,» he said, «and the earth shifted and new mountains were lifted to the sky to be worn down by new winds, new storms, new rivers running down to new seas.»
«‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…’» Eve whispered.
«It’s the way of the world, sugar girl. Beginnings and endings all tangled together, like the pictographs on a canyon wall, Indian and Spanish and us, different symbols, different people, different times.»
Slowly Eve looked back to the red stone that seemed so massive and enduring. Then she faced the man who refused to acknowledge that anything endured, even stone.
AS Reno and Eve followed the old Spanish trail, each valley or basin they rode through had more water and less rock than the previous one. The climb was so gradual that it was understood only at rare vistas where men could look back down toward the stone maze.
Slowly sagebrush gave way to pinon forests, and pinon gave way to pine. Red cliffs sank back down below the surface of the earth as sandstone gave way to different layers of rock that had come from deep beneath the surface of the earth, where heat transformed sandstone into quartzite, and limestone into marble.
Only one thing didn’t change. Each time Reno looked out over the back trail, there was a thin veil of dust miles and miles behind them.
«Somebody is still dogging us,» Reno said, putting away the spyglass.
«Slater?» Eve asked unhappily.
«They’re raising a lot of dust, so it’s either Slater’s men or an Indian raiding party.»
«Some choice,» Eve muttered.
Reno shrugged. «On the whole, I’m thinking it’s Slater. We don’t have anything Indians want enough to spend two days following us to get.»
«Are we going to try to lose him?»
«No time,» Reno said bluntly. «See those yellow patches high on the mountainsides?»
«Aspens are turning,» he said. «I’ll bet those clouds we’re looking at will leave a dusting of snow in the high country tonight.»
«How long do we have before everything gets snowed in?»
«Only God knows. Some years the high country closes the first week in September.»
A startled sound escaped Eve. «But it’s that late now!»
«And other years it can be open clear up to Thanksgiving, or even later,» Reno added.
Eve made a relieved sound. «Then we’re all right.»
«Don’t count on it. A storm can blow up and drop snow chest-high to a Montana horse in one night.»
Silently Eve remembered the warnings in the journal about the short summers and long, brutal winters in the country around the mine. Don Lyon had speculated that if the Indians hadn’t killed his ancestors, the mountains had.
«Those mountains won’t give up their gold easily,» Reno continued, as though following Eve’s thoughts.
«If mining gold were easy, someone else would have cleaned out the Lyons’ mine long ago,» she pointed out.
Reno stood in the stirrups, looking out across their back trail again.
«Why is Slater hanging back?» Eve asked.
«I suspect old Jericho’s greed finally got the better of his lust for vengeance,» Reno said dryly.
«What do you mean?»
«He didn’t think much of the notion that the journal led to a real gold mine.»
«Raleigh King did.»
«Raleigh King was a braggart, a bully, and a fool. Whatever he believed wouldn’t mean spit to Jericho. But about the time we cut Spanish sign along the trail, Jericho must have begun thinking.»
«About gold,» Eve said glumly.
Reno nodded. «But he can’t read the signs. We can. He can’t find the mine. We can.»
She looked unhappily over their back trail.
«And even if his Comancheros can read the sign,» Reno continued, «I’ll bet Jericho got to thinking about how much plain hard work gold mining is.»
«It didn’t make him give up.»
«No. He’s just going to wait for us to find the mine and get a bunch of gold together,» Reno said. «Then he’s going to come down on us like a blue norther’.»
Silence followed Reno’s calm words.
Finally Eve asked faintly, «What are we going to do?»
«Find the mine and the gold and hope to God above that Cal or Wolfe or Rafe gets wind of Slater before he gets impatient and kills us, and to hell with the gold.»
«What good would Caleb or one of the others be? It would still be three of us against however many Slater has.»
«He’s got at least two men scouting us, and the rest are raising enough dust for an even dozen. And the longer he’s on the trail, the more the word goes out. But he’s replaced the men he lost in that ambush three times over.»
«Do you think there’s much chance of Caleb following us?»
«More chance than there is of us finding Spanish gold,» Reno said succinctly.
«How will he know where we are?» Eve asked.
«News travels fast in a wild land, and Cal is a listening kind of man.»
«Then Slater could know about other people following us, too.»
«He could,» Reno agreed.
«You don’t sound worried.»
«Cal isn’t hunting me with death on his mind,» Reno said. «Slater knows Cal as the Man from Yuma. He’ll be real unhappy about having Cal on his trail. Cal, Wolfe, and I caught Jericho’s twin brother in a cross fire. What happened to Jed would have been a lesson to a man smarter or less mean than Jericho Slater.»
TWO days later, Eve was still watching the back trail as often as the way ahead. Hand shading her eyes beneath her hat brim, she stood in the stirrups and she looked out over the way she and Reno had come.
She thought she saw a thickening in the air way back where the Abajos began rising from the last broad step up from the stone maze, but it was hard to be certain. In the dry air, it was possible to see eighty or a hundred miles. At that distance, things smaller than mountains and mesas tended to flow together in a muted rainbow blur.
The slight haze she thought she saw could have been caused by a group of wild horses that had been startled by something and had galloped off, leaving a cloud of dust to rise behind.
The vague darkening in the air could also have been caused by wind blowing up dust, but it was beneath one of the blue-black clumps of cloud that were marching over the land. Dust and rain didn’t seem a likely combination.
It could have been simply a trick played on her by eyes tired from straining forever into the distance, seeking something that might or might not be there.
Or it could be Slater and his gang, dogging Reno and Eve’s trail with unnerving patience.
Eve turned away from her scrutiny of the back trail.
She felt a distinct thrill of pleasure as she watched Reno ride closer. He called hergata, but he was the one who moved with feline quickness and grace in everything he did.
Even before Reno spoke, Eve sensed his buried excitement in the way he held himself. It was a difference few people would have noticed, but she had come to know him very well during the long days and passionate nights on the trail.
«What did you find?» Eve asked before Reno could speak.
«What makes you think I found anything?» he asked, reining in alongside her.
«Don’t tease,» she said eagerly. «What is it?»
Smiling, Reno reached back into a saddlebag. When his hand emerged again, he was holding a piece of curved wood wrapped in rawhide that was cracked with age and dryness, and bleached nearly white by the sun.
Eve looked at the junk lying on Reno’s palm. Then she looked at him, perplexed by his excitement.
Smiling, he hooked his arm around her neck, pulling her close for a brief, hard kiss before he released her once more and explained.
«It’s a piece of stirrup,» Reno said. «The Spanish didn’t always use iron stirrups. This one was carved from a hardwood tree that grew half a world away from here.»
Hesitantly Eve touched the fragment of stirrup. When her fingertips brushed the smooth, weathered wood, she felt a spectral chill down her spine. Awe and curiosity rippled through her.
«I wonder if the man who used this was a priest or a soldier,» Eve said. «Was his name Sosa or Leon? Did he write in the journal, or did he watch while another man wrote? Did he have a wife and children in Spain or Mexico, or did he give himself only to God?»
«I was thinking the same things,» Reno admitted. «Makes you wonder if someone two hundred years from now will find that broken cinch ring we left next to the campfire ashes yesterday, and if they’ll wonder about who rode there and when and why, and if we’ll somehow know someone is thinking about us hundreds of years after we died.»
Eve shivered again and withdrew her hand.
«Maybe Slater will find the cinch ring and use it for target practice,» she said.
Reno’s head came up sharply. «Did you see sign of him and his gang?»
«I couldn’t be sure,» Eve said, pointing. «It’s so far back.»
Standing in the stirrups, Reno stared along the back trail. After a long minute, he sat once more and looked at Eve.
«All I see in that direction are some storm clouds trying to rain,» he said.
«I thought it might be the wind kicking up dust,» she said, «but the clouds were right over that spot, and it looked dark almost all the way to the ground. Rain and dust don’t mix.»
«They do here. In the summer it’s so hot and thirsty that rain from a small storm like that never reaches the ground. The drops just dry up in midair and vanish.»
Eve looked back at the clouds. They were the color of slate on the bottom and cream on the top. A ragged, slanting veil of lighter gray came from the base of the little storm.
The longer she stared, the more Eve was certain that Reno was right. The veil became thinner and thinner as it approached the ground. By the time the surface of the earth was reached, there was no moisture left.
«A dry rain,» Eve said wonderingly.
Reno shot her a sideways look.
When Eve realized he was staring at her, she gave him an odd, bittersweet smile.
«Don’t worry, sugar man. You’re safe. I’ve seen ships made of stone and a dry rain, but even the smallest light casts a shadow.»
Before Reno could think of an answer, Eve urged her horse forward, heading deeper into the mountains, searching for the only thing the man she loved would count on.
For two more days they followed a trail that was so old it appeared only to the half-focused eye or very late in the day, when sunlight slanted steeply and was the color of Spanish treasure. The valleys they rode through became smaller and steeper the higher they rode in the mountains. Every afternoon thunder rumbled through the mountains while first one peak and then another played host to the elemental dance of lightning. Rain came down cold and hard, running off the trees in veils of silver lace.
Between storms, aspens on the highest slopes lifted their golden torches to the indigo sky. Deer and elk were everywhere, fleet brown ghosts that withdrew before the horses. Creeks of startling purity abounded, filling shadowed ravines with the sound of running water. Only game trails were visible. There were no tracks of wild horses or man, for there was nothing on the steep slopes or in the rugged mountain canyons that couldn’t be found more easily at lower elevations.
When Reno and Eve came to the last, high valley described by both the shaman and the Spanish journal, they rode its length silently, looking all around.
There was no sign of Cristobal Leon’s lost mine.