For the third time that day, the sound of man-made thunder reverberated through the valley, battering the two people who were crouched behind a tree, their hands over their ears. Pulverized stone boiled up into the air and then fell in a jagged, dusty rain over a quarter of the small meadow.
When the last echo had faded and no more rocky debris pelted down, Eve cautiously lowered her hands. Despite the fact that she had covered her ears, they still rang from the force of the blast.
Reno straightened and looked out at the ravine that had been choked by rocky debris. As he watched, a ragged black hole in the mountainside emerged from behind veils of dust. Elation speared through him. He took off his hat and threw it into the air with a whoop of triumph.
«We did it, sugar girl!»
He pulled Eve to her feet and into his arms as he spun around and around until she was dizzy with laughter. He kissed her hard and fast, then set her on her feet and held her until she found her balance once more.
«Come on, let’s see what we have,» he said.
Grinning widely, Reno grabbed Eve’s hand and headed for the mine, moving with a long-legged stride that had her half running to keep up.
As he had hoped, the blast had removed most of the debris from the mouth of the mine tunnel. A tongue of jagged rubble stuck out from the opening. Grit and dust still hung in the air inside. Reno dropped Eve’s hand and pulled his dark bandanna over his nose.
«Wait here,» he said.
«No,» Reno said, cutting off whatever Eve was going to say. «It’s too dangerous. There’s no way of telling what shape the mine was in before the blast, much less after it.»
«You’re going in,» she pointed out.
«That’s right, sugar girl. I’m going in. Alone.»
Reno lit the lantern, ducked low, and stepped into the opening. Almost immediately he stopped, raised the lantern, and began examining the walls of the mine.
They were solid rock. Though seamed by natural cracks in the rock beds, the tunnel seemed strong enough. When he used his hammer on the surface, very little stone came free.
Cautiously, bent nearly double, Reno went farther into the mine. Very quickly the walls of the shaft changed. A vein of pale quartz no wider than his finger appeared. Tiny flashes of gold embedded in matrix answered every shift of the lantern.
Had the quartz been a creek, the gold within would have been panned as dust. But stone wasn’t water. Getting the tiny specks of gold free of their quartz prison would take black powder, hard labor, and a man who was willing to risk his life in dark, rock-bound passages beneath the earth.
«Reno?» Eve called anxiously.
«It looks good so far,» he answered. «Stone walls and a small vein of gold ore.»
«Rich man’s gold?»
«Yes. And not a whole lot of it.»
«Don’t get disappointed yet. I’m only fifteen feet into the mine.»
Eve heard the amusement in Reno’s voice and smiled despite her anxiety.
«Besides,» he said, «didn’t the Spanish journal talk about rough ingots of gold that had been cast but not carried off to New Spain yet?»
«Yes. There were sixty-two of them.»
A whistle floated back out of the mine.
«You never told me that before,» he said.
«I started to last night, but you distracted me.»
Laughter echoed in the tunnel as Reno remembered just how he had distracted Eve.
She had been bending over the campfire, tending a vension stew and talking about a badly spotted page in the journal she had just puzzled out. He hadn’t been listening closely, for the lush curve of her hips had claimed his full attention. They had barely managed to get all their clothes off before he pressed into her with the fire crackling on one side, the cool night air on the other, and in the center a smooth, liquid heat that fit him more perfectly than any glove.
«No, you were the one who distracted me,» Reno said.
Laughter was Eve’s only answer.
The floor of the mine shaft began to slant steeply beneath Reno’s feet. The vein of gold ore also dipped sharply, telling him that the tunnel was the result of following a bigger vein of ore rather than of any particular planning on the part of the Spaniards.
Reno moved quickly but carefully into the tunnel, shining the lantern all around as he went. The mine was sound except for the places where it cut through softer rock that hadn’t been cooked deep with the fires of the earth. Where the walls were in soft or heavily fractured rock, the Spaniards had put in beams to brace the tunnel.
There were many branching, seemingly random side tunnels that were too narrow for anyone but a child to get through. Those openings hadn’t been braced. Reno looked into each small hole, but didn’t find one that tempted him to explore it.
«Reno! Where are you?»
The sound of Eve’s voice thinned and echoed as it sank down through the mine.
«Coming,» he said.
Reno scrambled back up the steep incline and down the tunnel to the mine’s mouth. Eve was waiting just outside, a lantern in her hand.
«I told you to stay out,» Reno said curtly.
«I did. Then your light disappeared and didn’t come back. When I called out, no one answered. I didn’t know if you were all right.»
Reno looked at Eve’s level gold eyes and knew he wasn’t going to succeed in keeping her out of the mine unless he roped and hog-tied her like a calf for branding.
«Stay behind me,» he said grudgingly. «Don’t light your lantern, but keep some matches handy in case something goes wrong with the one I’m carrying. I have candles, but only for an emergency.»
Eve nodded and let out a hidden breath, glad that she wasn’t going to have to fight Reno over entering the mine. But fight him she would; she simply couldn’t bear to wait on the outside not knowing if something had gone wrong deep in the mine.
«This early part is safe enough,» Reno said.
Lantern light dipped and quivered and flowed as though alive when he gestured to the rock walls, ceiling, and floor.
«I thought all mines had some kind of wooden supports,» Eve said, eyeing the bare stone distrustfully.
«Not in solid rock. You don’t need it, unless the ore body is huge. Then you just leave some of the ore in place to act as pillars.»
A flash of white caught Eve’s eye.
«What’s that on the right?» she asked.
«A small vein.»
Reno made a rumbling sound of agreement. «Just like the chunk I took out of thattenate.»
«How did the Spanish know the gold was here if they couldn’t see it from the outside of the mountain? Did they use the needles?»
«Maybe. And maybe the vein showed on the surface somewhere else.»
Reno pointed to the wall. «This is the end of a shaft rather than the beginning. The nature of the rock changes about ten feet this side of the opening. The way the vein is dipping, it might come out close to that alcove you found.»
For a few steps there was only the sound of boots scuffing over the uneven floor of the tunnel.
«Watch it,» Reno cautioned. «It goes down steeply for about twenty feet.»
Eve looked. The nature of the walls seemed unchanged.
«Why did they suddenly take a notion to dig deeper?» she asked.
«Oldest mining technique in the world,» he said. «Find a vein, follow its drift, and leave tunnels wherever you take out ore or look for new veins.»
Wherever a tunnel branched off, there was an arrow pointing away from it. Each time Reno took a tunnel, he marked the shaft of the arrow so that he wouldn’t explore the same opening twice.
Some of the tunnels were numbered. Most weren’t. The result was a three-dimensional maze bored through rock that was hard as steel in some places, and nearly as soft as fruitcake in others.
«Why do all the arrowheads point away from the tunnel mouths?» Eve asked.
«In a mine, everything points to the way out. That way if you get lost, you don’t wander deeper and deeper.»
Just before the steep descent, there was a place where supporting beams had been brought in. The timber was roughly hewn. Some pieces still had fragments of bark clinging. Others were simply small logs that had been cut and dragged underground.
Small side tunnels branched out in all directions and levels. Two of them had caved in. Rubble in the bottom of the others warned of unstable ceilings or walls.
«What are those little holes I keep seeing?» Eve asked. «Most of them don’t seem to go anywhere but a dead end.»
«They’re called coyote holes. They were dug to find the drift of the vein. Once the miners struck the vein again, or found a better one, they abandoned the side tunnels and concentrated on widening the one that led to ore.»
«Such narrow tunnels. I’d barely fit in one. The Indians must have been even smaller than Don Lyon.»
«Only the children were. They’re the ones who dug the coyote holes.»
«Dear God,» Eve said.
«More like the devil’s work, despite the presence of Jesuit priests. Watch your head.»
She ducked and continued walking bent partway over. Reno had to bend much more deeply to avoid the ceiling.
«The boys would dig the holes, loadtenates, and carry ore up to the surface,» Reno said. «This must have been a wide vein, because they didn’t dig an inch more than they had to.»
Reno paused, examined the face of the tunnel carefully, and went on, crouching to avoid the ceiling.
«When the ore was brought to the surface,» he continued, «girls and smaller boys would hammer on it with rocks until everything was in pieces about as big as the ball of your thumb. Then it would go into thearrastra, to be ground into dust by the adult slaves.»
Black, ragged holes radiated out again from floor, walls, and ceiling.
«Lost the drift again here,» Reno muttered.
«The vein took a turn or was pinched off or was displaced by a fault line.»
«I always imagined veins as being straight.»
«That’s every miner’s dream,» Reno agreed, «but damn few are straight. Most gold deposits are shaped like a maple tree or like lightning. Branches every which way in all directions for no reason a man can see.»
The lantern swung as Reno bent over one of the yawning mouths set into the floor of the tunnel. Light washed into one of the coyote holes that was at waist level off to the right. The hole had been clogged with debris that had since dribbled out into the main tunnel.
«What’s that?» Eve asked.
«Hold the lamp a little higher, where the side of the coyote hole collapsed. Yes. Right there.»
Eve peered into the crumbling side tunnel. When she realized what she was looking at, she swallowed convulsively and backed up so quickly she bumped into Reno.
«Bones,» she said.
Reno stepped around her and held the lantern up to the coyote hole. Something gleamed palely inside. It took a moment for him to realize that he was looking at fragments of a leather sandal wrapped around a foot bone that could have been no more than six inches long. The dry, cold air of the mine had preserved the bones very well.
«Is it one of Don Lyon’s ancestors?» Eve asked quietly.
«A child,» she whispered.
«Yes. A child. He was digging and the wall gave way.»
«They didn’t even bother to give him a decent burial.»
«It’s less dangerous to fill in the front of a bad tunnel than it is to dig out a dead body,» Reno said. «Besides, slaves were treated worse than horses, and even a Spaniard didn’t bury his horse when it died.»
The lantern swung away, returning the coyote hole to the darkness of the grave it was.
Eve closed her eyes, then opened them quickly. The darkness was unnerving, now that she knew it was inhabited by bones.
«You asked what a chicken ladder was,» Reno said a few moments later. «Take a look.»
A long log poked up from one of the holes. Notches had been cut into the sides of the log to serve as footholds. The shaft wasn’t straight up and down, but the slant was so steep that passage wouldn’t have been possible without the log.
«Some of them are made with branches poking out instead of notches cut in,» Reno said. «Either way, they work.»
The wood felt rough and cool beneath Eve’s hand, except where the notches were. So many feet had passed over the notches that they were smoothed to a satin finish.
«Hold the lantern,» he said.
Eve took the light, then watched with her breath held while Reno tested the chicken ladder. Soon she could see only his broad shoulders and hat.
«Solid,» Reno said, looking up into the golden light. «Unless water is around, wood lasts a long time at this altitude.»
The primitive ladder led to another level of the old mine where more coyote holes branched off in all directions. Many of them were too small for Reno’s shoulders to fit in the opening. A few were so narrow that Eve barely could find room to shove the lantern ahead of her.
«Anything?» Reno asked.
He hadn’t wanted Eve to go poking into every coyote hole, but the logic of it was inescapable. She could go farther, and do it faster, than he could.
«It keeps going,» she said, wriggling out breathlessly. «But once you’re past the bend, another tunnel comes in. It’s twice the size of this one.»
She stood and brushed herself off. «There’s something funny about that big tunnel, though. The arrows point the other way. At least, they used to. Someone scratched out the head of the old arrows and put a new head on the tail.»
Reno frowned, pulled out his compass, and checked.
«Which way does the coyote hole turn?» he asked.
Eve pointed. «The other tunnel comes in from that direction, too.»
Reno turned to orient himself with the hidden tunnel and its twice-drawn arrows.
«Same angle, or does that change, too?» he asked.
«It goes up about like this,» Eve said, holding her hand at a slant.
«Are you bothered by those tight tunnels?»
She shook her head.
«You sure?» Reno pressed.
«Very. I’ll take tunnels over ledges perched like God’s eyebrow over a thousand-foot drop,» Eve said wryly.
Reno’s smile flashed in the lantern light. «I’m just the opposite. I’d rather be on God’s eyebrow than down in coyote holes any day of the week.»
She laughed. «Want me to see where that double-headed tunnel leads?»
He hesitated, then reluctantly agreed. «But only if the walls are rock. I don’t want you crawling through any of the crumbling stuff we’ve seen. Understand?»
Eve understood perfectly. While the coyote holes didn’t bother her the way heights did, she had no desire to end as the slave child had, buried alive.
«Go on, then,» he said reluctantly.
Before she turned to leave, Reno pulled her close and kissed her hard.
«Be careful, sugar girl,» he said in a rough voice. «I don’t like this one damn bit.»
Reno liked it even less as the sounds of Eve’s passage through stone faded into silence and the minutes crawled by as though nailed to the stone floor. The third time he dug out his watch, stared at it, and discovered that less than thirty seconds had passed, he swore and began counting slowly.
Finally he heard the sound of Eve half crawling, half scrambling through the coyote hole. As soon as her head and shoulders appeared, he pulled her out and gave her a hug that all but squeezed the breath from her.
«That’s the last time you go into a coyote hole alone,» Reno said flatly. «I aged ten years waiting for you.»
«It was worth it, sugar man,» Eve said breathlessly, laughing, kissing him. «I found it! I found the gold!»
TWO gold ingots gleamed in the firelight, gold as pure and uncorrupted now as the moment when slaves had first poured the molten metal into molds to cool. Reno looked from the ingots to the girl whose eyes were the exact shade of the Spanish treasure she had found hidden in darkness.
Eve looked back at Reno, smiled, and then laughed softly.
«I can’t believe there are sixteen more just like that one,» she said. «You should have let me go back and get them. I could have had them all out in the time it took you to widen the coyote hole that connects the two big tunnels.»
«The gold has waited this long. It will wait until tomorrow.»
«With both of us working, it shouldn’t —»
«No,» Reno said flatly, cutting across her words. «You’re not going into that coyote hole again. The part where it cuts the second tunnel is too damned dangerous.»
«But I’m smal —»
«The reason they closed out that second big tunnel,» Reno said over her, «is that the middle section isn’t stable. It collapsed more than once. Each time they cut a coyote hole around the cave-in and kept digging until they mined out the good ore, and things kept on caving in. Finally they came at the ore from the other side, where we started.»
«Do you really think that second big tunnel goes all the way to the alcove?»
He shrugged. «The rock layers looked the same.»
«Dear Lord.» Eve shivered. «That mountain must be honeycombed with holes.»
«Are you cold?» Reno asked, noting the shiver that had passed over Eve.
«No,» she whispered. «I was just wondering how many slaves died for those eighteen ingots of gold.»
«Not to mention the other forty-four ingots that are hidden somewhere down there,» he said.
Another shiver passed over Eve. She knew that Reno was going to search for the missing ingots. The thought of him hunting through the mountain’s lethal coyote holes for gold that might or might not be there made her wish they had never found the mine.
«I didn’t see any other coiled-snake symbols chiseled in the wall,» Eve said. «Maybe the Jesuits took most of the gold with them. Maybe it would be a waste of time to search.»
«Maybe they didn’t have time to spend chiseling snakes into rock walls to mark where treasure was buried,» he said dryly. «Maybe they just piled the ingots in a coyote hole and got the hell out of there before the king’s soldiers came and dragged them back to Spain in chains.»
Reno finished the last of his coffee and began scattering the embers of the small fire. Soon there was no illumination but that of the moon.
«It’s worth staying until the weather changes to look for forty-four gold ingots, isn’t it?» Reno asked.
The dark velvet of his voice acted on Eve like a caress. Suddenly she knew he wasn’t asking about staying for the gold; he was asking if she would stay here with him awhile longer.
Until we find the mine, you’ll be my woman.
And the mine had been found.
«With or without gold, I’d stay,» Eve said softly.
Reno held out his hand. When she took it, he kissed her palm, and led her to the place where he had cut evergreen boughs to make a bed. It was several hundred feet away, for any intruders would expect to find them by the campfire.
The tarpaulin rustled as Reno and Eve sank down on the bedroll together.
«I’ll never forget the smell of lilacs,» he whispered against her neck. «Or the taste of you.»
Before Eve could answer, Reno took her mouth in a long, deep kiss. By the time it ended, both of them were breathing quickly and flushed with heat. Long fingers moved over Eve’s shirt, baring her to the waist. The camisole gleamed like silver in the moonlight. Slowly he bent and brushed his lips over the rapid pulse in Eve’s neck.
«The first time I saw you in your camisole,» Reno said, «I wanted to take it off and bury my face in your breasts.»
Smiling, Eve unlaced the camisole and shrugged it aside.
«Lilacs and rosebuds,» he whispered. «God, but you’re sweet.»
«It’s my soap.»
Reno smiled slowly. «No, sugar girl. It’s your breasts.»
Reno kissed first one tip, then the other. The silky caresses of mustache and tongue drew Eve into velvet peaks. She made a murmurous sound of pleasure that became a gasp when he began taking tiny, gentle, repeated bites of her.
«I could eat every bit of you,» he said. «Head to heels and back again. Would you like that, gata?»
«Do I get to nibble on you, too?»
For an instant Reno went still. Then a sensual shudder went through his whole body.
«You don’t have to,» he said. «I’ve never asked that of a woman.»
«I want to,» Eve whispered. «I want to know you every way a woman can know a man.»
Between kisses and gliding caresses, they undressed each other until nothing lay between them but moonlight and the crisp air of mountain night. Reno pulled a blanket over them as he wrapped Eve in a long, naked hug.
«I wanted to do this, too, that first time I saw you,» he said. «I wanted to feel your body all bare against mine.»
Eve tried to speak, but the shiver of pleasure that went through her as the heat of Reno’s skin pressed against her whole body took her voice, making words impossible.
Her silent response was enough. A low, ragged sound came from Reno’s chest as he felt Eve’s delicate trembling.
«Each time it’s better,» he whispered. «Only you affect me like this. I don’t understand it, but I don’t care anymore. I need you tonight, Eve. More each time. Only you.»
«Yes, I can feel it. More each time…»
Reno barely heard. The feel of Eve’s fingers wrapped around his aroused flesh was like having golden flames licking all over him. The pleasure was so intense his whole body tightened.
Then Eve pushed the blanket aside, slid slowly down his body, and taught him what it was like to be loved by fire.
Her name came in fragments from his lips as she tasted him with all the curiosity and delicacy of a cat. The satin roughness of her tongue licked and teased each difference in masculine texture from rigid base to blunt satin tip.
When Eve circled him with her mouth, Reno tried to speak, but couldn’t. She had taken the breath from him and left seething, searing currents in its place. Sweat broke out all over his body as he fought to control the firestorm coiling in his loins. Fists clenched, he made a raw sound of passion and restraint.
«Reno?» Eve asked in a low voice. «Did I hurt you?»
His laugh was as broken as his breathing.
«No, sugar girl. You’re killing me, but you’re not hurting me one bit.»
Her sigh washed over his moist, sensitive skin, sending a visible pulse of pleasure through him.
«Did it feel good?» she asked.
«There’s only one thing that ever felt better.»
«When I sheathe myself in your sweet…»
The rest of Reno’s words were lost in the groan that was dragged from his lips as Eve caught him up in the loving firestorm once more. He took as much as he could, and then more, because it was a wild, sweet ecstasy he didn’t want to end.
Suddenly he could bear no more.
Reno shuddered, ravished by fire.
She whispered against him, telling him how much she liked his taste.
Another satin pulse escaped his control before he dragged her up his body until she straddled his hips, his waist, his chest.
«Higher,» Reno said huskily. «Higher. Make it easy for me. That’s it. Right there…so sweet…Stay there, sugar girl.»
The sleek questing of his tongue licked over Eve like sensual lightning. She made a husky sound that ended in a moan as a long finger tested her and found her sultry readiness.
Knowing that Eve had truly enjoyed the intimate caresses she had given him made Reno laugh with sheer pleasure. He redoubled his presence within her body, hearing her response in her broken breathing, feeling it in the slick heat of her body.
«You liked tasting me,» Reno said, nuzzling against Eve’s hot, soft skin.
Her words became a broken sound as his teeth closed delicately over her most sensitive flesh. She barely succeeded in controlling the liquid heat bursting through her.
«Don’t fight it,» Reno said huskily. «Let it come.»
Teeth raked with exquisite care, and tongue caressed.
«Share with me, sugar girl.»
Ecstasy stole softly through Eve’s body, claiming it. Reno felt it, tasted it, and laughed against her, caressing her again and again, savoring the silken rain of her response. When she could bear no more, he lifted her and turned over, stretching her out beneath him. She clung to him until the wild shivering subsided.
When Eve opened her eyes, Reno was propped up on his elbow, fully aroused, watching her. The two slender dowsing rods were in his hand. He bent, kissed her gently, and waited, a question in his eyes. Without hesitation, she reached for one of the rods.
It was warm from his body heat.
Slowly Reno settled between Eve’s legs even as she drew them up around him, yielding her warmth to him. He paused just before he fitted himself to her.
«Are you sure?» he whispered. «It could make me…wild.»
Eve smiled and shifted her hips, taking Reno even as he took her. The rod tips met, meshed, shimmered…and blossomed in a soundless explosion of fire. The world receded as they joined more deeply than they ever had before, knowing no difference between their bodies. They kissed each other and were kissed at the same time, caressed and were caressed, until rapture both delicate and elemental coursed through their interlocked bodies, fusing them into a single flesh, a single being, a single life.
As one they learned that ecstasy was like fire itself, changeless and yet never the same, burning everything but itself, a mysterious Phoenix reborn in its own flames, soaring upward to fly and die and be born yet again.