The horses had been restless when Reno and Eve emerged from the mine the previous day, and were restless much of the night. Shortly after dawn, Reno and Eve were awakened by the sound of three rapidly fired shots from a six-gun.
Without a word, both of them got up and dressed quickly. Instead of wearing boots, Reno pulled on knee-high moccasins of the kind favored by Apaches, some Comancheros, and Caleb Black, who was the quietest man on the stalk that Reno had ever seen.
Wish I were that good, Reno thought grimly. I’d send him out to find out what’s riling the horses while I did what I’m good at — shooting and mining, not sneaking around like a shadow.
Reno shoved the spyglass in his belt, strapped on his six-gun and bandolier, and picked up his repeating rifle.
«Stay with the horses,» Reno said.
«Promise me,» he interrupted urgently. «I don’t want to shoot you by mistake.»
«What if I hear more gunfire?»
«When I come back to camp, I’ll come in from the opposite direction. Shoot anything that comes in from the front of the valley.»
Eve closed her eyes, then opened them and looked at Reno as though she were afraid it was the last time.
«How long will you be gone?» she asked.
«I’ll be back before dark.»
Reno turned away, then turned back and gave Eve a kiss that was both tender and fierce.
«Don’t follow me. Be here when I get back, sugar girl.»
Eve’s arms tightened painfully around Reno before she let go and stepped back.
«I’ll be here.»
Without another word, Reno turned and began walking toward the mouth of the valley. He moved quickly over the meadow, keeping to the cover provided by the forest. The horses threw up their heads when they spotted him, then returned to their restless grazing when they recognized his scent.
Quickly Reno came to the place where the valley narrowed and the stream became a white cascade shooting between pincers of black rock. A game trail wound along one side of the cascade. Above the trail was a stand of squat, wind-blown spruce. Below it, at the end of the cascade, was a tiny, marshy meadow, another cascade, and then another, much larger valley with a rock-ribbed lake at one end.
Reno eased among the spruce trees and waited, motionless, until the birds and small animals returned to their normal patterns of movement. A fitful wind blew up the mountainside. The smell of smoke rode the wind.
So did the sound of men’s voices.
Reno settled more deeply into cover and waited. A short time later, two men appeared along the middle cascade. Their horses were gaunt, stringy, and tough as a boot. The riders were the same. They watched the ground and the surrounding countryside by turns. Each man wore a six-gun and had a rifle in a saddle scabbard.
One of the men was familiar to Reno. The last time he had seen Short Dog, it had been over the barrel of a six-gun at Jed Slater’s camp high in the San Juans, where Willow had been held prisoner. Short Dog had lifted his rifle, Reno had shot first, and Short Dog had fallen. But when the time came to bury bodies, Short Dog hadn’t been among them.
The other man was known to Reno only by reputation. Bandanna MIke was a stage robber and small-time gunnie who thought he was God’s personal gift to womanhood. His trademark was a black and red silk bandanna that was big enough to use as a picnic cloth. At the moment, the bandanna was lying at ease around his dirty neck.
Conversation came with the wind, phrases and bits that Reno had to piece together.
«Nobody been here…days,» Bandanna Mike said. «Why in hell…»
«Eat beans up here, eat beans down…» Short Dog said. «Same beans.»
There was silence punctuated by the occasional sound of a pebble rolling as the horses scrambled up a rocky piece of trail just below the spruces.
Reno was afraid the Comancheros’ horses would scent him if they kept climbing until Reno was upwind of them, but the men dismounted at the far end of the grove, perhaps thirty feet away. Unless the wind shifted, the horses wouldn’t catch Reno’s scent.
«No point to settin’ up here on a rock when we could be layin’ back there in grass,» Bandanna Mike grumbled. «They cain’t git out without walkin’ plumb through our camp, and even a skunk-drunk mestizo couldn’t miss ’em then.»
«Talk Slater,» Short Dog said.
«Might as well shoot myself and git it over with as talk to him,» grumbled Bandanna Mike.
«Shoot and Slater come hell-running you bet,» Short Dog said. «End same Walleye Jack.»
«Jericho had no call to shoot old Walleye. He was just funnin’ with that snake.»
«All same, Walleye Jack dead meat you bet. Snake same.»
«Jericho is a mean ’un,» Bandanna Mike agreed.
It was quiet for a few minutes. Then came the sound of a cork being pulled from a bottle. The satisfied gasping and coughing sounds that followed told Reno that it wasn’t water or coffee being passed around.
«What do you think happened to Crooked Bear?» Bandanna Mike asked.
Short Dog belched. «Dead or gone see squaw. Same thing.»
«Damn, but the thought of gold gets a feller to itchin’,» Bandanna Mike said after a moment. «Think they got it yet?»
«No leave yet. No gold yet,» Short Dog said succinctly.
For a time there was only silence and the sound of the restless wind. A horse snorted and stamped its foot.
Reno waited, motionless.
«You think that there Reno feller is as good with a six-gun as they say?»
«Goddamn straight fast hell-shooter you bet,» Short Dog said emphatically.
Silently Reno wished that he had shot just a bit straighter when he had had Short Dog in his sights. It would have meant one less Comanchero to deal with now.
On the other hand, there was never any lack of lazy, greedy, or cruel men to fatten the ranks of gangs led by men like Jericho Slater.
«What about thet gal? Did you see her? Is she a pretty ’un?»
«Squaw all same. Hell bad you bet.»
Bandanna Mike laughed. «Hell bad is goin’ without. Hope I’m one of the first. Ain’t no fun if’n there ain’t no vinegar left in a gal.»
There was another silence, another round of coughing and gasping as the men took a pull on the bottle, and then more silence.
«Acey-deucey?» Bandanna Mike asked.
Short Dog grunted.
The sound of cards being shuffled carried in the stillness.
Reno waited with the patience of a man whose life depended on it — and while he waited, he wished again that he had Caleb’s ability to move over terrain without making a sound. He would have given a great deal to slide up and cut Bandanna Mike’s dirty throat.
For an hour Reno listened to the two outlaws argue over cards. Then he withdrew slowly, using the fitful wind to cover any sounds he might make.
When Reno got back to camp, he circled around and came in from the back. Eve was waiting with the shotgun leveled and both barrels loaded. As soon as she saw him, she set down the gun and ran to him. He wrapped her up in his arms and held on hard. When he finally released her, she watched him with eyes that read him too well.
«Slater,» Eve said.
It wasn’t a question.
«Slater,» Reno confirmed. «He’s got two men guarding that little marshy meadow just below this one. The rest of his men are camped in the big meadow further down.»
«What are we going to do?»
«Hunt for gold, sugar girl.»
Reno smiled coldly. «Then I’m going to teach those boys about black powder.»
And pray very hard that Cal, Wolfe, or Rafe is on the way.
EVE waited at the point where the coyote hole came into the main tunnel. Reno’s work yesterday had widened the hole enough that he could squeeze through. It wasn’t comfortable, but it got the job done; it took him to the place where sixteen ingots had been buried centuries before.
The sound of Reno crawling closer reassured Eve, but she still wanted to hear his voice. She flattened out on the floor of the tunnel and called out.
«Reno? Is everything all right? I thought I heard something fall.»
His answer came quickly, distorted by the curves of the wormhole he was crawling through.
«Just me pushing junk out of the way,» he said.
It was half the truth, but it was the only half Reno planned to tell Eve. The middle of the old tunnel was unstable as hell. Widening the coyote hole had triggered two small slides. Loose rock was still raining down. A real slide could come at any moment. The longer he spent in either tunnel or coyote hole, the greater the danger was.
But Reno knew if he told Eve, she would insist on helping him get the gold out. He didn’t want her anywhere near the crumbling tunnels.
In fact, he hadn’t wanted her anywhere near any part of the mine this time, but she had gone mulestubborn on him. In the end he had agreed that she could come into the mine, but only as far as the solid rock of the main tunnel went. After that, she was to stay put.
«Stand back,» Reno said. Then he added wryly, knowing that standing wasn’t possible, «Crawl out of the way, gata. I’m coming through.»
Eve pushed away from the opening that still looked too small to admit Reno’s broad shoulders. As she watched, two gold ingots appeared. They gleamed in the lantern light as though freshly poured.
With a muscular twist of his body, Reno emerged from the small opening. His face was streaked with sweat and grit. So were his clothes. His weapons were clean, however. He had stacked them to one side of the coyote hole before he crawled in.
Reno picked up a heavy ingot in each hand and placed them with the others he had retrieved.
«Sixteen down and two to go,» Reno said, stretching.
«Let me get th —»
Reno heard the flat rejection in his voice and prayed Eve didn’t hear the fear for her safety that lay just beneath it. He forced himself to smile as he tilted her face up for a quick, hard kiss.
«I’ll be back before you know it, with a gold bar in each hand.»
Eve wanted to argue even though she knew it would be futile. Instead, she made herself smile as she brushed her fingertips over his lips.
«Hurry back, sugar man,» she whispered.
After Reno disappeared back into the coyote hole, Eve crouched by the black opening and prayed.
She was still praying when she heard a rumbling, grinding sound. A burst of air gusted out from the mouth of the coyote hole, bringing with it a cloud of grit and the sound of rock rushing down.
The coyote hole had collapsed.
«Reno!» Eve yelled. «Reno!»
Nothing came back to her but the gnashing sounds of rocks as they found a new place to lie.
When Eve looked into the coyote hole, there was no gleam of light from Reno’s lantern. Frantically she grabbed her own lantern and crawled into the narrow tunnel, pushing the light in front of her. There was so much dust hanging in the air that the light looked as though it had been wrapped in gauze.
Within seconds Eve was coughing and choking from the swirling dust. She yanked her bandanna up and wriggled forward as fast as she could, ignoring the rocks that scraped and bruised her body.
With every breath Eve took, she called Reno’s name. No answer came but the raw echoes of her own screams.
The lantern hit something and refused to budge. Crying, calling for Reno, Eve battered blindly at the unexpected obstacle. Finally she realized what was wrong. Where the coyote hole should have emerged into the older, wider tunnel, the ceiling had given way. Now there was nothing but a wall of debris.
Eve clawed at the loose rubble, pushing it away down both sides of her body. For every handful she removed, two more took its place.
There was no sound in the tunnel but that of her own broken sobs.
It was the same an hour later, when Eve finally realized that she didn’t have the strength to dig through the cave-in alone.
DIRTY, disheveled, wild-eyed, Eve crept past the point where Reno had said Slater’s guards were posted. Though twice she sent pebbles rolling, no man called out or came after her. She hardly noticed her good luck. She was intent on what had to be done, bribing Jericho Slater with a combination of gold ingots and lead bullets.
They want the gold, they can have it. But first they have to dig Reno free.
And I’ll be standing over them with a loaded shotgun every inch of the way.
A small corner of Eve’s mind knew that her plan was so foolish as to be suicidal. The rest of her mind just flat didn’t care. She wasn’t strong enough to dig Reno out of the mountain. Slater’s gang was.
So she would go to Slater, and let the devil take the hindmost.
Eve went through the marshy area like a gritty wraith. Her once white shirt was the gray-black color of the rocks. So were her pants. So was everything else but the guns she carried. She had wiped them down with a care Reno had taught her. The weapons were clean, fully loaded, and ready to fire.
The second cascade was bordered by forest and brush. Silence was impossible, but that didn’t matter; the water was making enough noise to drown out a mustang stampede. Automatically Eve shifted the shotgun and bandolier so they wouldn’t catch on the shrubs and trees that reached out to snag her.
Just before the cascade spread out across the boulder-strewn mouth of the larger valley, the water took one final leap over a slate ledge. Eve wriggled out on the rock to get a look at the camp. She had already decided that Jericho Slater was the first prisoner she should take. It was just a matter of finding out where he was.
A quick look over the ledge told Eve she was lucky not to be a prisoner herself. Slater’s gang was camped about a hundred feet from the waterfall, back in a thick grove of evergreens. Horses were picketed around the meadow. A quick count gave her a total of twenty.
Despair curled blackly in Eve’s bones. Ten men, she might have managed to watch. Even twelve.
There’s no help for it. Grab Slater, cut a deal, and get on with it. No matter how bad it looks for me, what Reno’s facing is worse, trapped in there without light or food or water.
And he never liked the tunnels. He feels the same way about them that I do about those eyebrow trails over slickrock.
I’ve got to get to him soon. I can’t leave him there alone.
Eve refused to think about the possibility that Reno was already dead under tons of rubble, buried as the slave child had been buried, one more sacrifice to the golden tears of the sun god. Eve was certain she would know if he were dead. She would feel it just as surely as she felt her own life now.
Wiping her eyes against her sleeve, she looked again at the camp. A swirl of pale gray caught her attention. Jericho Slater still wore the wrist-length cape of the Confederate army. The white planter’s hat was also familiar; he hadn’t removed it even when he sat at her table to play cards.
I wonder how Slater feels about tunnels. Hope he hates them. Because until Reno is free, Slater is going to be spending a lot of time in the dark.
Smiling grimly, Eve eased back off the slate overlook and into the cover of the trees.
As soon as the green boughs folded around her, a man’s hand shot out and clamped over her mouth. Simultaneously a powerful arm clamped around her waist, pinning her arms to her body. Though she was holding a shotgun, she had no chance to use it.
An instant later Eve was lifted off her feet, helpless but for her wildly kicking feet.
«Slow down, wildcat,» a deep voice said quietly in Eve’s ear. «It’s Caleb Black.»
Eve went still, then looked over her shoulder.
Caleb’s whiskey-colored eyes looked back at her. The warmth she remembered in his eyes was lacking. He looked just like what Reno had once called him, a dark angel of vengeance.
Eve nodded to show that she understood she was safe. Slowly Caleb set her down. When she was standing on her own feet, he jerked his thumb, silently telling Eve to get deeper into cover.
As soon as she did, another man stepped forward. His hair was the same black as Caleb’s, but the resemblance ended there. Caleb’s hair had a slight curl. Wolfe Lonetree’s was straight as a ruler. His eyes were an indigo so dark as to be nearly black. His face showed the high cheekbones of his Cheyenne mother and the sharply defined mouth of his Scots father. Though not as big as Caleb or Reno, Wolfe moved with a physical confidence that was more impressive than size alone would have been.
Caleb’s hands moved in sign talk that was as graceful as it was precise. Wolfe nodded and moved past Eve, touching his dark hat in silent greeting as he did. The hand he lifted to his hat was holding two boxes of shells. His other hand was wrapped around two repeating rifles.
Eve stared for an instant, then eased farther back into the trees, pulled by Caleb’s hand on her arm. As soon as it was safe to speak, she did.
«There was a cave-in. Reno’s trapped. There are two guards at the next cascade.»
Caleb’s eyes narrowed. «Is he alive?»
She nodded, unable to say anything for the fear drawing her throat tight.
«Is he hurt?» Caleb asked.
«I don’t know. I couldn’t get to him.»
«What did he say?»
«Nothing. He couldn’t hear me.»
Caleb didn’t ask how Eve knew Reno was alive. He had seen both the wildness and the soul-deep determination in her eyes.
«I took care of the guards,» Caleb said. «Go back to the marshy area and wait. We’ll be along shortly.»
«But Reno —»
«Go. We can’t do a damn thing for Reno as long as Jericho Slater is settin’ up to shoot us in the back.»
Caleb turned away, then stopped and looked over his shoulder at Eve.
«Rafe Moran is somewhere around here. So if you see a man as big as Reno coming at you, blond hair, easy-moving, with a bullwhip in one hand and a six-gun in the other, don’t shoot him.»
Numbly Eve nodded.
«There’s a pint-sized redhead called Jessi Lonetree about a mile back down the trail,» Caleb continued. «She’s supposed to stay put, but she might take a notion to come looking for her man after the shooting stops.»
«Jessi? Then that was Wolfe?»
Caleb grinned. «Sure was. Now, go on up to the marsh and wait for us. With Wolfe and a repeating rifle up on that rock preaching to them about the wages of sin, Slater’s boys will soon see the error of their ways. There will be a regular stampede of converts heading down the mountain.»
«I can help.»
«You sure can,» Caleb agreed. «You can get your rump up to the marsh and stay safe. If anything happens to you, no one would know where to look for Reno.»
«Then I’ll go back to the mine. He might be calling for me.»
«Don’t go inside that mine until I’m there,» Caleb said flatly.
Eve opened her mouth to argue.
«I mean it, Eve. I’ll tie you like a chicken for the spit if I have to.»
«Get it through your head,» Caleb said roughly, overriding her attempts to speak. «Without you, we don’t have a chance in hell of helping Reno.»
Slowly Eve nodded and turned away, not even noticing the tears that were once again making silver trails through the dirt on her cheeks.
She was halfway up the cascade when Wolfe Lonetree opened up with his rifle. Shot after shot screamed through the high mountain air, echoing back from stone peaks. From below, other rifles returned fire in a crescendo of noise.
By the time Eve reached the marsh, the rifle shots were coming less frequently. As she climbed the second cascade, a six-gun opened up in measured intervals. Silence returned to the mountain before she reached the tiny valley that held the mine.
Caleb had been right. Slater’s gang hadn’t liked facing Wolfe Lonetree’s lethal skill with a rifle.